On May 3, UNESCO adopted a decision relating to the Occupied Territories, including a section on Jerusalem. The official text is here. Ten countries voted against the resolution: the US, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Greece, Paraguay, Ukraine, Togo, and Germany.
What was Israel’s position vis-a-vis the resolution?
Like the UNESCO text of October 2016, this text was vehemently rejected and condemned by Israel, among other things for failing to recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem; denying Israel’s ties to Jerusalem; for failing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; for calling Israel an occupying power in Jerusalem; and for failing to explicitly articulate the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
This Israeli response to the text is cynically manipulative and intentionally misleading, and in most cases attributes things to the text that simply are not there. It is of course noteworthy that NO country recognizes Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem – its status is to be determined; no country recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – this too will be part of a permanent status agreement; and calling Israel an occupying power in East Jerusalem is a factually correct term for Israel’s presence there, under international law and consistent with longstanding international consensus.
Moreover, while all these points are correct, they are actually beside the point.
· The resolution contains no mention of any sovereignty in Jerusalem whatsoever – the issue simply doesn’t arise.
· There is no mention of any capital in Jerusalem, and the omission is entirely compatible with the nature and substance of the text.
· Nowhere is there a denial of Jewish ties to Jerusalem or the other holy sites, and on the two occasions when any mention is made of religious attachments the text is scrupulously egalitarian, dignified and using terminology acceptable to all stakeholders, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike: the two cursory mentions of religious attachments in the document occur where the resolution reaffirms “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions” and states Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Al- Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb “are of religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
In short, the Israeli attacks on the resolution do not merely misconstrue the actual text, they are blatant and willful falsehoods.
How does this new resolution compare to the previous ones?
· First, as noted in our previous reporting on UNESCO resolutions and Jerusalem, UNESCO has been passing resolutions related to Jerusalem every year since 2004. These resolutions have never included any reference to Jewish (or Christian) equities in Jerusalem; the language of the 2016 resolution was consistent with the customary language dating back more than a decade (and until 2016 not a source of controversy).
· As we also noted previously, from 2004-2008, the language of the resolutions overall was relatively anodyne, consistent with a mostly stable status quo in Jerusalem. Starting in 2009 – coinciding with the assumption of power of the Netanyahu government and the assumption of local authority by Mayor Nir Barkat, and continuing with the admission of Palestine as a UNESCO member in 2011 – the language of the resolution became progressively longer, and more polemical, in parallel to changes in Israeli policies in relation to Jerusalem, its Old City and Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount. As a result, over time these resolutions, including the May 2017 version, have come to resemble more a polemical manifesto than a responsible effort to genuinely address the legitimate concerns raised about the challenges undermining the status and uniqueness of Jerusalem. That being said, claims that the resolutions have in the past denied Jewish connections to Jerusalem in general and to the Temple Mount in particular are simply false.
· In this context, the latest resolution included changes that could have been viewed as victories for Israel. For example, the main point on which Israel focused its anger in the October 2016 resolution was the text’s usage of Islamic terminology with respect to Jerusalem’s holiest site (referred to in the resolution as the al Aqsa Mosque and Haram el Sharif) rather than (or in addition to) using the Jewish terminology (the Temple Mount). This choice of terminology was portrayed by Israel as UNESCO legitimizing Muslim claims in the city and ignoring or delegitimizing Jewish claims. In the May 2017 resolution, in contrast, this battle over terminology was resolved by removing the relevant passage – in effect, refraining from employing terminology specific to any stakeholder. The fact that this change in the text was ignored/dismissed by Israel as irrelevant validates the conclusion that Israeli outrage over the resolution has less to do with the actual text and more to do with political gamesmanship.
· Similar to one version of the resolution of October 2016, the text refers to the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls “for the three monotheistic religions Similarly, it states that Al-Haram al Ibrāhīmī/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Al-Khalīl/Hebron and the Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb are of religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Consequently, it cannot be claimed that the resolution denies Jewish attachments. Moreover, the omission of specific reference to the Jewish attachment to the Temple Mount is qualitatively less egregious given the non-inclusion in this resolution of any parallel embrace of Islamic ties (that is, the removal of reference to Al Aqsa/Haram al Sharif).
How did the changes in the resolution come about?
Reportedly, Germany played a leading role in getting changes in the language of this resolution (changes that Israel might have been expected to welcome), and in building a supporting coalition composed of leading European and Arab States. In spite of this effort, Israeli officials launched an in-your-face offensive targeting Germany for these efforts. In the end, twenty-two countries voted in favor of the resolution: 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, Ultimately, both Israeli and U.S. pressure convinced 9 countries to join the United States in voting against the resolution: Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Holland, Lithuania, Greece, Paraguay, Ukraine and Togo.
What was Israel’s reaction to the passage of the new resolution?
Initially, the Israeli reaction to the draft resolution was both sober and reasonable. Foreign Ministry officials went so far as calling in a diplomatic breakthrough (see here), pointing out that Israel’s diplomatic efforts had borne fruit. While Israel continued to note that the text remained problematic, pride was taken in the fact that most egregious language had been removed.
While there were no significant distinctions between the draft resolution in which Israel took pride and the version ultimately adopted, the Israeli reaction to the latter was very different. The conclusion is inescapable: the attack on the resolution was a premeditated, calculated move to discredit both UNESCO and those who refuse to swallow Israel’s hasbara line about just how idyllic the situation is in Jerusalem. This specious attack – and the attack on those who refuse to unequivocally oppose the resolution – makes clear that Netanyahu prefers picking a fight to solving a problem. Indeed, based on his reaction it is conceivable that he would have preferred UNESCO to have adopted a genuinely toxic text, so as to more easily permitted him to play the outraged, self-righteous victim. Deprived of that easy opportunity by sober, reasonable changes made in the drafting process, Netanyahu elected to simply pretend that the text was something that it was not – preferring to play to his hardline domestic base by picking a fight with an ally like Germany, rather than commending that ally for successfully working to improve the text, to Israel’s benefit.
In addition, the Israeli government lashed out in various ways that went beyond the attack on a text that doesn’t exist:
· Far-right Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, called for immediately closing down the UNESCO office in Jerusalem – notwithstanding the fact that UNESCO does not have an office in Jerusalem (Regev apparently does not know the difference between UNESCO and UNSCO – the office of the UN Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace, which has nothing to do with UNESCO, and indeed maintains a compound in Jerusalem).
· The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned Sweden’s Ambassador to reprimand him for his country’s vote in UNESCO. An Israeli official dismissed Sweden’s explanation of its vote as “a masterpiece of hypocrisy, playing skillfully with nasty anti-Israel propaganda.” It is noteworthy that no similar summons was issued to other countries that supported the resolution, such as Russia, Brazil and China. In Netanyahu’s UNESCO passion play, it is Sweden that has been cast in the exclusive role of the pre-ordained, metaphysical anti-Semite.
· Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that Israel would cut its payments to the UN over the “delusional” vote in UNESCO. As noted in JPost: “This money is in addition to $2 million Israel said it would withhold from the UN after the passage in March of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council, and $6m. that Jerusalem slashed in January in the aftermath of the passage of anti-settlement resolution 2334 in the UN Security Council. Following these cuts, Israel will contribute only $2.7m this year to the UN, instead of the $11.7m that was originally earmarked.” Haaretz reported Barak Ravid tweeted later that “An Israeli official told me further cuts might lead to Israel losing its voting right in UN institutions.”
Any additional conclusions about this UNESCO drama?
The complex and sensitive issues regarding the management of Jerusalem’s precious sacred and historical heritage sites clearly falls under the purview of UNESCO, and these classic heritage issues have, in Jerusalem, far-reaching geopolitical ramifications. The past and current UNESCO resolutions regarding Jerusalem’s Old City deal, for the most part, with subjects of genuine concern, real problems that regrettably are dealt with by means of language that is often inflammatory and polemical. Neither the religious and historical integrity of Jerusalem, nor the equities of the stakeholders, have been well served by these resolutions.
It is long overdue that UNESCO approve a sober, lucid, and pragmatic resolution regarding Jerusalem’s Old City, which is compatible with both the norms and values of UNESCO and the provisions of international law. Israel is indeed the occupying power in East Jerusalem, but the occupier has not only obligations under international law, but powers and responsibilities as well – as do the religious and cultural institutions, such as the Waqf, under Israeli rule. Such a resolution would articulate a nuanced approach to Jerusalem in all its complexity and multiplicity. It would offer clarity regarding the terms of engagement that are mandated by widely accepted norms pertaining to heritage sites, and by the provisions of international law. It would create clear and achievable benchmarks which would protect not only the cultural integrity of the city, but be a major force of stabilization in the ever-volatile Jerusalem.
Framing and approving such a resolution is both essential and achievable.
Regrettably, likely that if/when such a resolution is adopted by UNESCO, Netanyahu will lead a well-orchestrated chorus of feigned outrage over the text, which will likely have no bearing on what the resolution actually says, or how what it says relates to the realities on the ground. Given the chance to score cheap points in the arena of hasbara, it is unlikely that Netanyahu will be allow himself to be burdened by the facts.