UNESCO Passes Resolution Critical of Israeli Conduct in Jerusalem and Gaza

More member-states oppose softer motion than in similar votes in the past after Israeli and American pressure dismantle deal between EU nations and Arab states

File photo: An aerial view shows the Dome of the Rock (R) on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, and the Western Wall (L) in Jerusalem's Old City.
File photo: An aerial view shows the Dome of the Rock (R) on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, and the Western Wall (L) in Jerusalem's Old City O Reuters/ Eliana Aponte

UNESCO's executive committee passed on Tuesday a resolution critical of Israeli conduct in Jerusalem and Gaza. The motion was approved by a smaller majority than in the past, after many countries voted against it due to Israeli and American diplomatic pressure that led to the dismantling of a deal forged between the Arab countries that initiated the resolution, Germany and European Union countries.

Twenty-two countries voted in favor of the resolution, including Russia, China, Brazil, Sweden, South Africa, Iran, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Chad and seven Arab countries. Ten countries voted against the resolution, including Germany, which had pushed for a deal with the Arab states over the resolution. The United States, Italy, Great Britain, Holland, Lithuania, Greece, Paraguay, Ukraine and Togo also opposed the resolution.

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Twenty-three countries abstained, including France, Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, India, Argentina, Mexico and Japan. Other abstaining nations included Haiti, Dominican Republic, Saint Kitts, Kenya, Trinidad, Albania, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda, El Salvador, South Korea and Sri Lanka. Three countries did not participate in the vote - Nepal, Serbia and Turkmenistan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, ahead of the scheduled vote, that Israel "does not believe in UNESCO." The prime minister added: "There is no other people for whom Jerusalem is as holy as for the Jewish people, even though a discussion is taking place at UNESCO today that will try to deny this simple truth."

The resolution that was approved was softer than similar motions on Jerusalem approved by UNESCO last year. As part of the deal with EU nations, the Palestinians and the Arab states agreed to make significant concessions, first and foremost the omission of any references to the Al-Aqsa Mosque or to Haram al-Sharif - the Muslim term for the Temple Mount. The points removed from the resolution were precisely those that angered Israel and caused it to freeze cooperation with the UN body. In addition, the text of the resolution added a sentence according to which Jerusalem is noted as important for the world's three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Despite the significant softening of the language, Israeli officials were not pleased. First, they said the resolution remains political in character and still includes criticism of Israel. The resolution still defines Israel as an "occupying power" regarding everything pertaining to Jerusalem. It does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and it is critical of Israeli archaeological digs in the east of the city and around the Old City. It is also critical of the situation in the Gaza Strip and Israel’s conduct at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.

Although the resolution passed, the results of the vote were much better than Israel had feared last week. The reason is that with intensive diplomatic activity by the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Israeli ambassadors in Europe and the Israeli ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen, Israel succeeded in breaking up the agreement between 11 EU countries that are members of UNESCO’s executive committee and the Palestinians and the Arab states.

That deal, promoted by Germany, the Arab states agreed to significantly soften the wording of the resolution in exchange for a commitment by the EU countries not to vote against it, but to either support it or abstain. In such a situation, the number of countries opposing the resolution would have much considerably lower and it would have won greater international legitimacy.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials noted that in recent days Israel exerted heavy pressure on several EU nations to abandon the deal and vote against the resolution. In Israel they hoped that if even one country dropped out, it would cause a domino effect and the deal would fall apart. Israel knew that if the deal broke down, the Arabs would not have enough time to submit a new, harsher resolution.

Most of the pressure was brought to bear on Italy, which, after the vote on Jerusalem a few months ago, promised to oppose any anti-Israel resolution by UNESCO. Israeli ambassador to Italy Ofer Zaks conducted intensive talks with senior officials in Italy’s Foreign Ministry, while Shama-Hacohen pressed his Italian counterpart and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano over the weekend and reminded him of Italy’s promise. Alfano was persuaded and managed to bring Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni around.

On Monday, Italy informed the other EU countries that it planned to oppose the resolution and break the consensus. A senior Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said that the Italian announcement led to a quick disintegration of the deal, as one after another Great Britain, Holland, Lithuania, Greece and in the end, even Germany said they would oppose the resolution.

“Our stand is clear,” Alfano said, in a statement made just before the vote. “UNESCO cannot become a permanent arena for ideological wrangling [over issues] whose solutions are to be found elsewhere. We hope that our clear signal will be understood by UNESCO.”

Shama-Hacohen said after the vote that it was an incredible diplomatic achievement.

“The fact that in the vote in October 2014 only the United States supported Israel, since then the number has gradually increased thanks to the diplomatic effort led by the prime minister,” he said. “Despite the excellent result we still speaking of resolutions that have no place in the family of nations and certainly not in UNESCO. To vote against a country on its Independence Day is a new low for the Arab countries, but the results of the vote are their Yom Kippur. They’re in shock; they came this morning certain that the EU was in their pocket, and ended with five countries that voted against them for the first time.”