UNESCO Adopts Another Contentious Resolution on Jerusalem

Though softer in wording, the new motion still ignores Judaism's ties to the Temple Mount. Ten member states backed the resolution, two opposed and eight abstained.

Jerusalem's Temple Mount and Western Wall on May 5, 2015.
Gil Cohen-Magen

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee adopted on Wednesday another resolution on Jerusalem which ignores Judaism's connection to the Temple Mount.

Ten member states supported the motion, two opposed it, eight abstained and a representative of one member state was absent.

The new resolution was submitted by Lebanon and Tunisia for Jordan and the Palestinians, who are not among the World Heritage Committee's 21 member states. In contrast to a similar resolution passed two weeks ago, the current one is softer in wording.

For instance, the resolution refers to the Western Wall by its Jewish name, which is not in quotation marks, as it has been in previous motions. Additionally, references to the site by its Muslim name, al-Buraq plaza, have been removed. So, too, has the term "occupying" force in regards to Israel, after years of Palestinian refusal to drop the term in UNESCO resolutions on Jerusalem. The resolution however still only refers to the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name, Haram al-Sharif or Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Even though the motion passed, Israel gained some diplomatic points since it was able to "force" a vote on the resolution. In recent days, the Palestinians and Jordan softened the wording of the resolution in attempt to reach consensus among the panel's member states and approve it without a vote. Jordan and the Palestinians threatened to submit a harsher resolution if a vote was held.

However, Israel refused to back down and pressed some of the member states into demanding a vote on the motion.

A senior Israeli official said that the United States helped Israel to try to recruit countries that would demand a vote, thereby enable countries interested in doing so to vote for or against, or to abstain. At the same time, in recent days Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held phone conversations with foreign ministers and heads of the countries that are members of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, in an attempt to convince them to demand a vote and to oppose or abstain.

Thanks to the Israeli efforts, Croatia supported a secret vote, and the American efforts convinced Tanzania to do so as well. Contacts with the two countries were conducted via secret channels, and when the panel's session began on Wednesday morning, the Palestinians and representatives of the Arab countries were surprised when the Croatian and Tanzanian ambassadors demanded a secret vote, rather than passing the decision by consensus.

UNESCO regulations state that in the event that at least two countries demand it, a vote must be held rather than having the decision passed by consensus. The announcements by Tanzania and Croatia caused an uproar in the hall, and representatives of the Arab countries on the panel tried to prevent a vote from being held.

Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, then took the floor and announced that the regulations require holding a vote. The chairwomen of the meeting, the Turkish representative, turned to the legal adviser, who explained that according to regulations a vote must be held. The legal advisor's ruling did not satisfy the representatives of the Arab countries, who continued to protest, which led to an announcement of a 10-minute recess.

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.
Permanent mission of Israel to the UN

When the meeting was resumed, representatives of the countries that support the Palestinians continued to try to delay the vote, and several ambassadors even got up and ran to the dais, in an attempt to prevent it from being held. Despite the pressure, a secret vote took place. The fact that it was secret enabled many countries that feared the reaction of the Arab countries to vote against it, or abstain. In the end more countries opposed the decision or abstained, than voted in favor.

"The Palestinians and the Arab countries were left at the end of the day without the consensus that they were sure was in their pocket," Shama-Hacohen told Haaretz after the vote. "Aside from the Muslim countries, only Cuba and Vietnam supported them. We were able to surprise them at the last moment, and for that the Foreign Ministry deserves the credit.”

Shama-Hacohen added: "We especially want to thank Croatia and Tanzania, which courageously put themselves on the line for Israel and openly demanded a vote, against the entire Arab world. And of course, we thank our ally, the United States, which played a significant role in checking the Arab attempt to achieve a consensus on the decision."

He noted that the decision that motion passed was also "absurd, and belongs in the garbage bin of history." But Shama-Hacohen said that the Israeli pressure left the Arab countries with no choice but to retreat on the issue of the Western Wall. "Some day we'll bring about a change in the wording regarding the Temple Mount too," he said.