Israel Is Seeking a New Ambassador to UNESCO, Even Though It Said It's Quitting UN Body

The U.S. government announced its withdrawal in October over alleged 'anti-Israel bias,' and Netanyahu followed suit in December

 Israeli ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen
Nir Keidar

Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel would follow the lead of the United States and withdraw from membership in UNESCO over what was termed the organization’s continuing discrimination against Israel, on Thursday the Foreign Ministry posted an internal ministry job notice for the position of ambassador to UNESCO. The job posting for ambassador to the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was issued in advance of the departure in September of the current Israeli ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen.

Foreign Ministry officials said that since Israel’s resignation as a member of UNESCO will only take effect at the end of 2018 in any event, there will be a need for someone to take Shama-Hacohen’s place for the last several months of the year after his term ends and that following that, his replacement would focus only on representing Israel at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is also based in Paris. Other official sources said, however, that despite Israel’s announced departure from UNESCO, in practice, no final decision has been made over whether Israel would remain in the organization as an observer.

Shama-Hacohen, who is a former Likud Knesset member, will have served four years in Paris after Netanyahu extended his term by a year. Although the job posting for ambassador was initially publicized among the ministry’s diplomatic-level personnel, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, may at the last minute decide to fill the position with a political appointee.

Following the American announcement in October that it would be withdrawing from UNESCO due to alleged “anti-Israel bias” and over accumulated American debt as a member country, in December Netanyahu instructed Shama-Hacohen to submit an official letter of withdrawal from the organization from Israel as well. Israel’s decision followed a series of discussions and deliberations that included the need not to leave the United States alone in addressing its concerns about UNESCO.

The resignation does not bar Israel from requesting observer status, as the Americans said they would also probably request. UNESCO’s rules provide that any announced withdrawal from the organization takes effect on December 31 of the year following the announcement, meaning that both the United States and Israel would be due to have their withdrawals take effect at the end of 2018.

“The bottom line is that the United States is leaving UNESCO because of the State of Israel and it is our moral duty that it not do so alone,” said Shama-Hacohen in submitting Israel’s resignation letter. “UNESCO, led by Arab countries, has broken the record for hypocrisy, incitement and lies against Israel and the Jewish people while sullying its lofty fundamental principles through politicization and diplomatic terror that has sometimes bordered on anti-Semitism.”

He added, however, that the Israeli government “was not slamming the door” but rather “inviting the organization’s new leadership to promote fundamental reform that will not permit cynical use of the organization for politicization.”

Over the past two years, UNESCO has adopted several resolutions that provoked ire in Israel, including a resolution stating that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron and Hebron’s Old City are Palestinian heritage sites. Twelve countries supported the resolution, three voted against and six abstained. Netanyahu called it “another delusional UNESCO decision,” and added: “Those who are buried there are Abraham, Israel and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, our patriarchs and matriarchs.”

In addition, the organization adopted a resolution that was perceived by Israel as “casting doubt regarding the connection of Judaism to the Western Wall” because it included a provision that depicted Jerusalem’s Temple Mount as a site holy to Muslims. The Western Wall plaza was referred to by its Muslim-Arab name, Al-Buraq plaza. Its Hebrew name, the Kotel, only followed in quotation marks, while Israel was referred to as the occupying power at the site.

In October, with the announcement of the withdrawal of the United States from UNESCO, Haaretz reported that Israel was taken by surprise by the decision. American and Israeli officials noted at the time that there had been no coordination between the United States and Israel leading up to the announcement and that the Trump administration had not given Netanyahu advance notice of it.

The issue had come up last June during a visit to Israel by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the officials. But the United States did not inform Israel in advance regarding a final decision on the matter. It was only after the American announcement of its withdrawal as a UNESCO member that Netanyahu ordered the Foreign Ministry to begin preparations for Israel to follow suit.

Following the U.S. announcement in October, Audrey Azoulay, a former French culture minister who was born into a Moroccan Jewish family, was chosen as UNESCO’s new secretary general. Azoulay was France’s culture minister for about a year under President Francois Hollande. Although she had declared her candidacy for the UNESCO post before Emmanuel Macron was elected as France’s new president, the country continued to support Azoulay’s bid for secretary general after Macron's election. 

In Israel there is hope that Azoulay will be able to forge a compromise that could pave the way for the United States and Israel to resume membership in the organization.