In recent years the United States and Israel have railed against resolutions in UNESCO critical of Israel, and in particular against resolutions critical of Israeli actions and policy in Jerusalem.
This year — to the backdrop of Trump’s historic policy shift on Jerusalem (which was roundly condemned by the UN General Assembly) and of ongoing high numbers of Palestinians killed and injured while protesting along the fence separating Gaza from Israel — Israeli and U.S. diplomacy have apparently managed the extraordinary feat of significantly dampening criticism in UNESCO regarding both Jerusalem and Gaza. Specifically, the U.S. and Israel convinced UNESCO to agree, by consensus and with the support of the Palestinians and Arab nations, to postpone voting on resolutions on both Jerusalem and Gaza by six months. UNESCO’s new director, Audrey Azoulay, reportedly played an important role in assisting the various parties to reach this consensus; when nominated for the position, Azoulay made clear her determination to “restore its [UNESCO’s] credibility, restore the faith of its members and its efficiency, so it can act.” There is no indication thus far that this latest development will lead Israel to reconsider it decision to quit UNESCO.
In addition, U.S. and Israeli diplomacy scored a success on the text of the Jerusalem resolution, with a compromise that moves to a non-binding annex the points that Israel views as most controversial, including the reference to previous resolutions that are seen by Israel as biased. The ability of Israel and the UNESCO’ Arab member states to reach consensual decision is welcome and could serve better UNESCO’s role and values. Yet, rather than seeking to water down criticism towards Israel, what should matter here is to make a responsible effort to genuinely address the legitimate concerns raised about policies/actions that undermine the status and uniqueness of Jerusalem.
Our analysis above regarding the current trajectory of events on and in relation to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif clearly indicates just how much critical serious UNESCO engagement on Jerusalem issues has become. Our main conclusions on this matter have not changed since our previous report:
“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.”