Editorial |

UNESCO Was a Diplomatic Defeat for Netanyahu

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers remarks at the Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn Award Ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 22, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers remarks at the Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn Award Ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. Credit: Andrew Kelly, Reuters

The UNESCO executive board’s resolution on the Old City of Jerusalem was a searing diplomatic defeat for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy. In recent months, Netanyahu has told journalists and cabinet ministers that Israel’s international standing has changed; that “the world” is tired of the Palestinian problem; that Israel’s military and economic power are attracting conservative Arab states that share its fear of Iran and radical Islam; that Israel has an alternative to American support in the form of other world powers like Russia, China and India. Soon, Netanyahu promised, even the “automatic” pro-Palestinian majority at the United Nations would crumble. In less euphemistic language, Netanyahu claimed that Israel had received the world’s permission to continue the occupation and the settlements, and the Palestinians could go to hell.

But now along comes UNESCO’s approval of a resolution that described the Temple Mount and its environs in accordance with the Muslim narrative and reminded Israel that even the Western Wall is occupied territory according to international law. Humiliatingly, the Western Wall Plaza was called Al-Buraq, with the Hebrew name in parentheses.

This resolution was supported by Netanyahu’s new friends from Egypt, Russia and China, as well as Chad, which has grown closer to Israel, and Vietnam, which buys a lot of Israeli weaponry. Greece, with which Netanyahu is proud of nurturing an alliance, abstained, as did India. And who voted against? Our old friends: the United States, led by Barack Obama, along with Britain and Germany.

It turns out the world hasn’t changed. Israel may be accepted behind the scenes, in back-channel dealings, but when the lights go on, legitimacy belongs to the Palestinians. And Israel’s old friends are the only ones that still give it backing, even though Netanyahu has rejected their efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution.

The day after the UNESCO vote, the UN Security Council held a discussion about the settlements. Israel boycotted the meeting, so as not to hear the truth that echoed from wall to wall: The settlements are destroying any chance for an agreement and are leading to a one-state solution. The U.S. administration is debating over whether to end its term with a UN resolution that would enshrine this message.

Netanyahu scorns professional diplomats and says there’s no need for them as long as he’s around (Barak Ravid, Friday’s Haaretz). Now it turns out that this is an empty boast. His concept has collapsed; he remains vulnerable to the international community, which opposes his annexationist policies; and only American support protects Israel from harsher measures.

This weekend, Netanyahu worked to leverage his defeat at UNESCO for domestic purposes, arguing that “the entire world is against us.” But such posturing is worthless. Improving Israel’s international standing has a clear and well-known price tag: meaningful steps to moderate the occupation and serious negotiations to establish Palestine. Anything else is just the prime minister throwing sand in our eyes and regaling us with fairy tales.

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