UNESCO defangs anti-Israel texts, drawing praise and one ‘strange’ Israeli jeer

Non-binding decisions were result of Israeli-Arab negotiations, but Israel’s envoy to UN slams move as proof of agency’s ‘lies and biases’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

UNESCO'S director-general, Audrey Azoulay, in Paris, France, November 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
UNESCO'S director-general, Audrey Azoulay, in Paris, France, November 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

The Executive Board of UNESCO on Wednesday passed two decisions critical of Israel, but did it in a way meant to answer some of Jerusalem’s concerns. While the cultural agency celebrated the move as a sign of “goodwill,” Israel’s ambassador to the UN still slammed it as further proof of the organization’s “lies and biases” against the Jewish state.

The two texts on “Occupied Palestine” sharply criticized Israel — called the “occupying power” throughout — for various policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. For instance, Decision 28 deeply “deplores the ongoing military developments around the Gaza Strip and their heavy toll of civilian casualties” and refers to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the Old City of Hebron “an integral part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Decision 29 says UNESCO’s Executive Board is deeply “concerned by the Israeli army violations against Palestinian universities and schools” and refers to the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory.

However, rather than put them before a contentious vote that would still have ended with their approval, UNESCO — the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — instead shuffled the texts into a non-binding annex which was approved by consensus, a process that Israel has cheered in the past as a diplomatic achievement.

In April, after two resolutions were accepted in the same way as part of a compromise solution, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO said the mood was “like a wedding.”

Since October 2017, when Israeli, American, and Arab diplomats agreed to postpone votes on these controversial resolutions, 12 decisions on “Occupied Palestine” have been agreed upon after negotiations between Israel on one hand and the Palestinian and Jordanian delegation on the other, the agency said Wednesday.

“I would like to commend the spirit of dialogue and the sense of responsibility that led to this result,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said Wednesday. “A trend towards consensus is now emerging. It is based on the presence of all parties around the table at UNESCO and, of course, on their goodwill.”

Audrey — who took over UNESCO’s helm in October 2017, mere hours after the US and Israel announced their withdrawal from the organization — is said to have worked to combat the cultural body’s ongoing politicization in a bid to convince the two countries to reconsider.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considered attending a UNESCO event and meeting Azoulay last month in at the UN General Assembly New York, but then surprisingly turned down the invitation, citing the agency’s “persistent and egregious bias against Israel.”

According to reports, Netanyahu backed out of the event because he did not want to anger the United States, which has taken a hard line with UNESCO.

In this April 12, 2018 picture shows Palestinian alternate ambassador to UNESCO Mounir Anastas, right, UNESCO Director General France’s Audrey Azoulay, left, and Israeli UNESCO ambassador Carmel Shama Hacohen speak after a meeting in Paris, France. Diplomats at UNESCO are hailing a possible breakthrough on longstanding Israeli-Arab tensions at the UN cultural agency. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

On Wednesday, Azoulay indicated that the consensual passing of the two decision on “Occupied Palestine” had Jerusalem’s blessing.

“I wish to thank those who have worked to achieve this, especially the representatives of the Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian delegations, and all members of the Executive Board who supported this agreement, as well as the European Union,” she said in a statement.

“More broadly, this result should encourage all Member States to work together, in a spirit of unity, even on the most difficult objectives,” she added.

In April 2017, Israel’s then-ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama Hacohen, celebrated the arrangement to pass anti-Israel resolutions in non-binding annexes without a vote as a major achievement in the Jewish state’s battle against the automatic Arab majority in international bodies.

“I’m more than happy” with the outcome, he said at the time.

Shama Hacohen has since left Paris and has been replaced by a career diplomat for the remainder of Israel’s membership in UNESCO. As things stands now, Israel will leave the organization on December 31.

‘Lies and biases’

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on Wednesday’s measures.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, however, slammed the passing of the two decisions. “This is further evidence, for anyone who did not understand why the United States and Israel withdrew from UNESCO, that again proves that UNESCO is a body based on lies and biases, and is deliberately acting against us,” he said in a statement.

“The State of Israel will not be a member of an organization that is trying to rewrite history and willing to be manipulated by our enemies.”

Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks during a brief press conference before a Security Council meeting at UN Headquarters, July 24, 2018, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Danon’s statement was odd given Jerusalem’s apparent blessing and the fact that UNESCO used the non-voting mechanism in an effort to satisfy Israel.

A diplomatic source in UNESCO on Wednesday said he failed to understand why Danon would attack an arrangement that Israeli diplomats had negotiated to achieve.

An Israeli diplomat entered the UNESCO secretariat and okayed the text, before the Palestinian and Jordanian delegations entered the room and also signed off on the deal, the source said.

“It’s really strange,” he said, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity. “It’s also very problematic, because if he’s representing Israel, he should know what’s going on.”

Danon might have misunderstood what happened on Wednesday in Paris, and will surely soon issue a clarification of his remarks, the source added.

Danon’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday night.

Under Azoulay, UNESCO has made major efforts to mediate between Israel and the Arab countries sponsoring resolutions on the Middle East, in a bid to convince Jerusalem and Washington to reconsider their decision to withdraw from the organization, the source said, questioning Israel’s decision to leave the body.

“Our new path, the path of mediation and negotiation, lessens the tensions that existed before Azoulay came onboard,” the source added. “The question then can be asked: What interest do the Israelis or the Americans have in quitting?”

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