In a last-minute about-face, Israel said Monday that it would not allow a UNESCO delegation to inspect Jerusalem’s Old City as had been arranged.
The visit had been heralded as a possible sign of a thaw in ties between Israel and UNESCO, after Jerusalem cut off contact with the UN body following its recognition of a Palestinian state in 2011.
A government official said the cancellation was due to Palestinian “politicization” of the UN mission contrary to the agreed parameters of the visit.
“The Palestinians were not respecting the understandings,” a Foreign Ministry source told AFP. “The visit was supposed to be professional, [but] they were taking measures that showed they were politicizing the event and not letting the delegation focus on professional sides of it.”
“Palestinian foreign minister Riad Malki recently said they considered the mission a ‘commission of inquiry,’ and said they would discuss political issues with the mission,” the official said.
Israel announced in April that it would allow a mission from UNESCO to visit the Old City in May, in exchange for an agreement from the Palestinians to postpone a UN debate on five resolutions condemning Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
At the time, Jerusalem also agreed to take part in a meeting in Paris of experts from the UN’s cultural body focused on the Mughrabi Bridge, the wooden walkway that leads to the Temple Mount from the Western Wall Plaza.
The visit was meant to put into effect a 2010 plan by UNESCO to safegaurd the Old City and its walls.
The deal was brokered with the help of the US, Russia, Brazil and Jordan and was hailed at the time as “a critical step forward toward depoliticizing UNESCO,” according to US envoy David T. Killion, quoted by the New York Times.
Cultural heritage has become a flashpoint for the two sides since the Palestinians were admitted to UNESCO, over US and Israeli objections.
UNESCO was the first UN organization to accept the Palestinian state as a member following the failed bid by President Mahmoud Abbas that year to achieve upgraded nonmember state status, a victory he achieved a year later at the UN General Assembly.
The organization lost an estimated $80 million per year in donations from the US following the admittance of the Palestinians.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.