UNESCO delays anti-Israel resolutions as it picks new head

Israeli envoy praises diplomatic efforts to push off measures, but says Israel cannot ‘rest on its laurels’ ahead of next summit

FILE: Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen, left, talks to UNESCO Executive Board chairman Michael Worbs, right. (Erez Lichtfeld)
FILE: Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen, left, talks to UNESCO Executive Board chairman Michael Worbs, right. (Erez Lichtfeld)

The United Nations cultural arm unanimously agreed to delay voting on a pair of anti-Israel resolutions on Wednesday, as the body convened at a summit this week to pick a new head.

The delay of the measures was a significant diplomatic achievement for Israel, with the Foreign Ministry noting it was the first time no anti-Israel resolutions were passed at a UNESCO session since 2011.

Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO praised the decision to push off the votes and the Israeli efforts behind it, but said Israel would need to continue to be vigilant ahead of the next time the body meets.

“The achievement today was the fruit of three years of hard, exhausting and frustrating diplomatic work,” Carmel Shama-Hacohen said in a statement. “From this moment on we have already turned to the next round and there is no reason to rest on our laurels.”

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, October 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

The resolutions approved Wednesday, known as 202 EX/39 and 202 EX/38, pushed off the two anti-Israel items until UNESCO’s next session in April 2018.

While Israel was concerned Iran would scupper the agreement to postpone the measures, the decision to delay them was approved unanimously.

One of the resolutions postponed on Wednesday is similar to one passed in May that downplays Jewish links to Jerusalem. The other resolution levels a host of accusations against Israel, including “Israeli army violations against Palestinian universities and schools” and calling on Jerusalem to “cease all of its settlement activities.”

While praising the cooperation between countries to delay the resolutions, Jordan’s ambassador to UNESCO said the items would appear on the agenda of the body’s next meeting because of the “legitimacy” of their content.

Echoing the Jordanian ambassador, the Palestinian envoy to UNESCO said the delay was meant to “avoid unnecessary tension” but stressed the need for the measures to counter Israel’s “occupation.”

The US ambassador to UNESCO praised the body’s decision to not adopt “such one-sided and decisive resolution(s)” and said while the US remains committed to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any solution “must be negotiated directly between the two parties.”

The American envoy also said the US hopes the selection of a new director-general of UNESCO would help ” build a more constructive process here that addresses the fundamental concerns of all, avoids further damage to the credibility of UNESCO, and supports broader efforts toward peace in the region.”

During the meeting in Paris this week, UNESCO members have been voting on a replacement for the body’s outgoing head Irina Bokova.

Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

As of Tuesday, Qatari diplomat Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari has emerged as the leading contender, while France’s Audrey Azoulay, a former culture minister like al-Kawari, was in second place among the six candidates still in the running.

Shama-Hacohen bemoaned the results of the first round of voting on Monday, which saw al-Kawari take the most votes, saying it was “bad news for the organization and unfortunately also for Israel.”

However, he also stressed that “anything can happen” and that the first round doesn’t necessarily indicate who will win. He pointed out that current head Irina Bokova only won seven votes in the first round of voting when she was elected.

Delegates will continue to vote every day this week until one candidate receives a majority of votes. If, by the fourth round of voting, to be held on Thursday, no candidate has received a majority, only the top two candidates from that round of voting will be put forward for a final vote Friday.

Bokova’s tenure has been marred by funding troubles and tension over its inclusion of the Palestinians as members.

Israel and its staunch ally the United States have condemned UNESCO over what they say is an ingrained anti-Israel bias.

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, with cultural agency’s director-general Irina Bokova, September 26, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)

Intense diplomatic wrangling has marked the race among seven candidates to become the next director-general of UNESCO. Arab countries have long wanted to lead the organization, though divisions over Palestinian membership have complicated their push.

UNESCO infuriated Israel and the US by granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.

Both countries suspended their funding to the agency — best known for its prestigious World Heritage List — over the move.

Most recently, the Paris-based body delighted Palestinians when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank an endangered world heritage site. It has also passed several resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to Jerusalem, drawing Israeli officials’ fury.

Israeli officials have stepped up lobbying at the world body in recent years, charging it with passing one-sided resolutions that obsessively target Israel. Bokova had also criticized anti-resolutions proposed by Arab states.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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