Six Key Moments in Israel's Tumultuous Relationship With UNESCO

Since it became the first UN body to grant Palestinians full membership in 2011, UNESCO's relationship with Israel and the U.S. has been rife with controversy

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen discards a resolution on Jerusalem, saying it 'belongs in the garbage bin of history,' November 10, 2016.
Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen discards a resolution on Jerusalem, saying it 'belongs in the garbage bin of history,' November 10, 2016.Credit: Permanent mission of Israel to the UN
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

The Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the United Nations' cultural and education agency over its perceived anti-Israel bias - and Israel's decision to follow in its tracks - is the culmination of six years of controversy and acrimony.

UNESCO was the first UN body to admit the Palestinians as a full member in 2011, though Israel has long charged it has held an anti-Israeli position. Controversy surrounding UNESCO votes have often affected Israel's relations with other countries, resulting in diplomatic snafus with traditional allies such as Germany, Italy and Sweden.

In nearly every controversial instance, Israel and the United States waged intensive diplomatic efforts to recruit member states to vote down the measures, often failing to secure support for their cause.

Below are the key moments highlighting the moments leading to the U.S.'s landmark withdrawal.

1) October 2011: UNESCO grants Palestinians full membership

UNESCO became the first UN agency to respond positively to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' application for full membership of the United Nations. Israel temporarily froze $100 million in funds that were to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority as a result of the vote, and the Obama administration soon halted its annual $80 million in funding, due to a U.S. law requiring America to stop funding any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a full member.

The White House called UNESCO's decision "regrettable" and "premature" and said that it undermined the international community's shared goal for a "comprehensive, just and lasting peace" between Israel and the Palestinians.

In December 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acceded to America's request that Israel cease its opposition to the U.S. resuming funding of the agency. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's current defense minister but then a member of the opposition, slammed Netanyahu's move as a "disgraceful capitulation that would cause substantial diplomatic damage to Israel on the international stage."

2) January 2014: UNESCO cancels exhibition on Jewish presence in land of Israel

In January 2014, UNESCO canceled an exhibition at its Paris headquarters on the Jewish presence in the land of Israel following complaints by the group of Arab states at UNESCO.

The exhibit was to show roughly 30 illustrated panels showing the Jewish people's history in the land of Israel, from the days of the Bible to the modern day State of Israel as a high-tech powerhouse. The Arab group protested in a letter that said it was "deeply disturbed by the exhibition, which it condemns."

UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said that the exhibit would be postponed indefinitely out of UNESCO's support for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. "We have a responsibility in ensuring that current efforts in this regard are not endangered," she wrote.

Following pressure from the Obama administration and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, UNESCO opted for a six-month delay rather than an outright cancelation.

Orthodox Christians immerse themselves in the Jordan River at a baptism ceremony.Credit: AP

3) July 2015: UNESCO backs Jordan as Jesus' baptism site

In July 2015, UNESCO designated Jordan's baptismal area on the eastern bank of the Jordan River a World Heritage site that is "believed to be" the location of Jesus' baptism, based on what it said is a view shared by most Christian churches.

Experts who reviewed the Jordanian application for UNESCO acknowledged that there is no solid archaeological evidence confirming that the location is the authentic site. The Israeli-run counterpart, located in a part of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli military occupation, has attracted larger crowds than its Jordanian counterpart, in part because it is on the classic Holy Land pilgrimage trail.

Israel kept silent on the matter while a Palestinian Tourism Ministry official said both banks of the river should receive the same treatment, but that "it's not easy for us to defend a site we have no control over."

4) October 2016: UNESCO backs motion denying Jewish link to Temple Mount

In October 2016, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee passed a resolution that disregarded any Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and only referred to it by its Muslim names. Netanyahu slammed the decision as "absurd theater," and the agency's director general even criticized the resolution.

Several weeks later, UNESCO passed a softer version of the resolution that referred to the Western Wall by its Jewish name, though still ignored Judaism's ties to the site.

Jews visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 18, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara claimed that a severe earthquake in central Italy happened because of the resolution during a visit to the Vatican days after the vote, and days before Italian President Sergio Mattarella was to visit Jerusalem.

5) May 2017: UNESCO passes resolution critical of Israeli conduct in Jerusalem and Gaza

In May 2017, UNESCO's executive committee passed a resolution critical of Israeli conduct in Jerusalem and Gaza. Prior to the motion's passage, Israel-Germany relations took a sharp turn for the worse after Foreign Ministry officials claimed Germany had not helped to block the resolution.

The resolution's language was softened from its original draft, but it still defines Israel as an "occupying power" in Jerusalem, not recognizing Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and criticizing Israeli archaeological digs there and around the Old City. It is also critical of the situation in the Gaza Strip and Israel's conduct at holy sites in Hebron and Bethlehem.

Israel's Foreign Ministry summoned the Swedish ambassador to Israel, Carl Magnus Nesser, 24 hours after the passage, as his country was the only Western state to support the resolution.

6) July 2017: UNESCO recognizes Hebron, Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian heritage site

In July 2017, UNESCO voted to recognize Hebron's Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian heritage sites. The resolution also states that the two sites are recognized as being in danger.

Netanyahu called the decision "surreal" and moved to cut $1 million from Israel's UN fees after the vote. President Reuven Rivlin also issued a rare harsh criticism, saying UNESCO is "determined to keep disseminating anti-Jewish lies."

The Palestinians hailed UNESCO's vote, with the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling it "the only logical and correct decision."

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