UNESCO Resolutions on the Old City & Its Walls: Analysis

Jerusalem was in the spotlight last month, in the context of two separate votes in UNESCO on resolutions related to the status of the city. The first vote took place on October 12, on a resolution the passage of which sparked objections from Israel and generated widespread controversy and condemnations. The second vote took place on October 26, after Mexico asked for another vote, on a resolution (text still not available on the UNESCO website as of this writing), the passage of which sparked further controversy and condemnations.

The texts: The resolutions in question were harshly attacked for employing exclusively Muslim terminology for Jerusalem sites that are sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. In so doing, the resolutions implicitly validate only Muslim claims to the city. Even the sole mention of non-Muslim equities in the initial resolution – referring to “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions” – fails to mention Judaism and Christianity by name. And in the second resolution, even this rather meek language is absent. Moreover, the texts resemble polemical manifestos more than any responsible effort to address the legitimate concerns raised within the texts about very real developments on the ground.

The history: A point that has gone largely unreported in the controversy of these resolutions is the fact that UNESCO been adopting resolutions similar to these since 2004 [text: 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016]. In reviewing the annual texts, two conclusions stand out:

  • These annual resolutions never included any reference to Jewish or Christian equities in Jerusalem. Thus, the 2016 resolution was not only NOT unprecedented in this approach, it was consistent with the customary language dating back more than a decade. What changed was not the wording (however problematic it might be) but the broader political context in which the resolutions were adopted.
  • These annual resolutions have evolved in response to Israeli policies in relation to Jerusalem, its Old City and Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mt., and the zero-sum skirmishing that has ensued. From 2004-2008, the language of the resolution was relatively anodyne, consistent with a relatively 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 has become progressively longer, and more polemical, focusing criticism of Israeli policies relating to specific controversies (like the Mughrabi Ramp).

The 2016 controversy, Element 1: Political Opportunism: Without making light of the highly problematic language in these resolutions, it is also clear that the controversy around the 2016 resolutions, involves no small degree of cynical political opportunism on the part of the Netanyahu government, its allies, and, its opposition. Led vociferously by Prime Minister Netanyahu, several Israeli politicians responded in a manner that was no less problematic than the resolutions themselves. Claims that the resolutions deny Jewish connections to Jerusalem in general and to the Temple Mount in particular are simply false.  Those ties are ignored (with the exception of the cursory mention of “the monotheistic faiths” in one text) but in no way denied. While the terminology used is indeed problematic, it neither denies Jewish and Christian equities in Jerusalem, nor establishes the exclusivity of a Muslim claim – contrary to the assertions of not only Netanyahu but a number of political figures, including opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and Minister of Education Naftali Bennet. Others, such as Likud Minister Yuval Steinitz further fanned the flames of outrage by calling the decision anti-Semitic, an accusation that is patently unjustified. Not every bad resolution related to Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, and the abuse of the term whitewashes real anti-Semitism, which is on the rise, without tarring the resolutions. It is apparent that this “over-the-top” Israeli response – echoed to varying degrees by Jewish leaders in the United States and members of the U.S. Congress – is no mere critique of the resolution but crass manipulation of UNESCO actions for the purposes of hasbara point scoring and domestic political gain.

The 2016 controversy, Element 2: Mutual Denial on the Ascendency: At the same time, controversy over the 2016 UNESCO texts cannot be understood outside of the context of the frenzy of mutual denial – Palestinian/Arab denial of Jewish history and attachments in Jerusalem, and Israeli/Jewish denial of Palestinian and Muslim history and attachments in Jerusalem – that have become common in recent years, and were a major contributory factor in the recent round of disturbances (a concern which we have discussed at length in previous reports).

Conclusions & Next Steps: Within this overarching political context, it is understandable that those not axiomatically devoted to support for any given Palestinian position – including the United States and European states – either opposed or withheld support from the resolution. But this raises the question: What should UNESCO’s member states do? It is clear that the document is structured to score points against Israel, and this flaw is so fundamental that it cannot be redressed through amending the resolution.

That said, almost all of the issues raised in the two resolutions are both genuine and problematic, even if they are grossly misrepresented. The Israeli response is no less problematic. Together they combine to create a zero-sum dynamic that impedes both responsible/accurate efforts to focus on the highly sensitive issues at stake in Jerusalem, and the development of pragmatic means to address them. Under these circumstances, simply voting against the proposed resolution is grossly inadequate. Neither Jerusalem and its historic sites, nor the prospect of addressing the real threats to them, is served by annual exercises in “yes/no/abstain” votes on irreparably flawed UNESCO resolutions. As Irina Berkova, Director-General of UNESCO, noted on October 14th:

“As I have stated on many occasions, and most recently during the 40th session of the World Heritage Committee, Jerusalem is the sacred city of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is in recognition of this exceptional diversity, and this cultural and religious coexistence, that it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”

Members states who believe that the 2016 resolutions are unhelpful and even deeply damaging to the prospects of a stable Jerusalem should in the future take the initiative of advancing better text. Jerusalem problems are real and the U.S., together with Europe, can and should propose a sober alternative, compatible with international law and reverent towards the complexity of Jerusalem.