UNESCO said pushing for Israel to rethink exit, citing work to end bias

UNESCO said pushing for Israel to rethink exit, citing work to end bias

Audrey Azoulay invites Netanyahu to meet next month in New York to discuss a possible delay in Jerusalem leaving body after efforts to improve treatment of Israel

French Jews hold Israeli flags as they take part at a demonstration against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)
French Jews hold Israeli flags as they take part at a demonstration against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet next month and discuss a possible delay or even reversal of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the agency, accused by Jerusalem of bias against it, a senior Israeli diplomat said Wednesday.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, told The Times of Israel that “UNESCO’s new director-general, for obvious reasons, expressed great interest in meeting with the prime minister, to try to present him with ideas on how to restore UNESCO-Israel relations to a professional path.”

Israel and the US announced at the beginning of the year that they would be leaving the group by the end of 2018, citing among other reasons the body’s anti-Israel bias.

Netanyahu called Azoulay some three weeks ago and thanked her for her efforts to stop what he called the discrimination against Israel in the UN agency, Channel 10 reported Wednesday, citing a senior Israeli official.

UNESCO head Audrey Azoulay speaks at a press conference following her election on October 13, 2017, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (AFP Photo/Thomas Samson)

The official was quoted as saying one of the ideas being examined in Jerusalem was not to cancel the withdrawal, instead delaying it by several months to check on the changes in the organization.

Netanyahu praised Azoulay for the fact that no anti-Israel resolutions have been passed at UNESCO for nearly a year, the report said. Shama-Hacohen also said Jerusalem recognized Azoulay’s efforts in this respect.

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. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

“Obviously, we welcome any constructive efforts in our foreign relations, Shama-Hacohen said. “But the issue is complicated.”

The US is determined to leave UNESCO at the end of this year, which complicates a possible Israel decision to stay, the envoy added. It would “appear unnatural” for Israel to reverse its decision to quit all the while the US is still withdrawing from it, he said.

Azoulay was said to invite Netanyahu to participate in a convention on anti-Semitism taking place in New York on September 26, a day after the UN General Assembly begins its annual session.

She reportedly told the premier she was making big efforts to change UNESCO’s treatment of Israel, and added she would like to meet him at the sidelines of the UN session to discuss a possible postponement of Israel’s exit from the agency.

A time for such a meeting hasn’t been set, the report added. Sources close to the prime minister said the meeting hadn’t been finalized, and that it wasn’t yet clear whether Netanyahu will participate in the anti-Semitism event.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on July 16, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

While just a few months ago it was impossible to dissuade Israel from quitting the agency, that is now no longer the case, although it is still very unlikely that Israel would remain, the Israeli envoy stressed.

“Either way, Israel won’t even consider staying unless there are significant changes at UNESCO that would lead the organization to focus on its original mission dealing with culture, science and education, rather than committing diplomatic terror attacks against Israel.”

In June, Shama-Hacohen suggested a rethink of Israel’s planned exit from the world cultural body, citing a “new spirit” in the organization after two resolutions critical of the Jewish state, regarding the old cities of Jerusalem and Hebron, were delayed by one year at the agency’s World Heritage Committee.

Israel’s envoy to the UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, attempts to deliver official papers announcing Israels withdrawal from the cultural organization, December 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

“I was the first to recommend leaving the organization after the United States announced its withdrawal, but now Israel must not ignore the new spirit emanating from UNESCO, and we need to reevaluate, in full coordination with the US, the question of leaving,” he said.

In April, UNESCO’s Executive Board agreed to delay by at least six months voting on two resolutions, one on Gaza and another on Jerusalem, that Israel considered very “extreme.” Following negotiations by the Israeli delegation and the Arab nations that sponsored the resolution, the executive board voted unanimously to delay a decision on the two resolutions until the next session to be held in October.

UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, but it also works to fight violent extremism, improve education for girls, promote Holocaust understanding, defend media freedoms and encourage science on climate change.

In recent years, however, Israel has been infuriated by resolutions that ignore and diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and that have named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.

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