It may have seemed like a pipe dream for Israel to one day be cozying up to a United Nations body. But ever since Koichiro Matsuura took over as director-general of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) nine years ago, Israel has played an increasingly high-profile role in the programming of the Paris-based organization.
"Israel has become a very important part of UNESCO," Matsuura told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday in his suite at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, as he ticked off a list of joint projects in various stages of implementation.
On a three-day visit to the country, Matsuura emphasized that cooperation by signing the first memorandum of understanding between Israel and UNESCO with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which consolidates the joint projects in education, Holocaust education, science and culture.
Matsuura said the signing of the memorandum symbolized a significant bolstering of relations between Israel and UNESCO, and expressed confidence that cooperation would be expanded.
At the signing ceremony at the Foreign Ministry, Livni said the memorandum of understanding would contribute to changing the perception of Israel in the world.
"There is a disparity between the perception of Israel and its values and what Israel really is, not only as a country, but as a society.
"The promotion of interests common to Israel and international organizations is the right thing to do, even if it is sometimes not always easy. UNESCO is to be commended for choosing to strengthen its cooperation with Israel and for its efforts in promoting these values," said Livni.
On his activity-crammed visit, Matsuura focused much of his time on educational projects involving UNESCO support. At the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, he reviewed the progress of a bioinformatics computer network launched by the university that will enable scientists throughout Asia and Eastern Europe to plug into the vast molecular biology resources available on-line.
Matsuura also met with university officials about Weizmann's role in one of his pet initiatives - the SESAME Project.
"We have very good cooperation with Weizmann, and one very good example is the SESAME Project," he said.
Sesame, or "Synchrotron-light Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle-East," was the brainchild of Stanford physicist Prof. Herman Winick. His plan was to build a laboratory in Jordan, with donated German equipment and Weizmann expertise, which would speed up electrons in a circle to produce high-energy light called synchrotron radiation, useful for a number of experiments. UNESCO took the projects under its wings.
"SESAME is in the advanced stage of the preparatory process and we're planning a soft launch soon," said Matsuura. "Beyond the scientific aspect, the main goal of the whole program is to get Arab and Israeli scientists to work together. And I see the Weizmann Institute as the focal point."
Matsuura said that with the existence of institution like Weizmann and Tel Aviv University, which he also visited, it was clear there was no place for academic boycotts of Israel. He stressed that he and UNESCO have consistently fought such efforts.
"I've advocated publicly against these initiatives since they began," he said, citing two official UNESCO statements released in 2003 and 2006.
"The free exchange of ideas and knowledge, which lies at the heart of all intellectual activity, is the very lifeblood of academic work and institutions. These [boycott] efforts are unfortunately emerging here and there, but very sporadically, and not systematically. I can't say they have completely died down. If they emerge again, I will continue to speak out against them," he said.
Turning to another point of contention in the Israeli-Arab conflict, Matsuura said that following its mediation efforts last year over the Mugrabi Gate work outside the Temple Mount, UNESCO would be sending another inspection team to Jerusalem in two weeks for talks aimed at arriving at a solution agreeable to all sides.
"The UNESCO team which came here last year found that Israel had not caused any damage in the excavations," said Matsuura. The team members toured the excavation site and met with Jerusalem's city engineer, Israel Antiquities Authority representatives, and officials from the Jerusalem Municipality and the Wakf Muslim religious trust.
"I do hope the talks this month will make progress. It's very important for all the parties concerned to establish to what extent further excavation is necessary, and to come to an agreement on how to reconstruct the gateway, without doing any damage to the authenticity of the site," he said.
Happy to focus his attention on a less controversial site, Matsuura said he was impressed by a tour of Tel Aviv's "White City" led by Mayor Ron Huldai. The White City, named because of the large number of white building erected there between the 1920s and the 1950s in the Bauhaus style, is one of five Israeli locations named to the World Heritage List under the auspices of UNESCO.
"I told the mayor I was quite impressed by the beauty of these buildings. But that's not all. It's not easy to rehabilitate and maintain the authentic character of these houses when people are living there. I complimented the mayor on these efforts," said Matsuura.
"A few years ago, there were no Israeli sites on the World Heritage List, and now there are five. And more are on the way," he added, disclosing that the triple arch at Tel Dan, which is the first known use of an arch in the world, would likely become the next Israeli site on the list.
"It's a very good candidate," he said.
Matsuura, a young-looking 70, was first elected to head UNESCO in 1999, and was reelected to a four-year term in 2005. Before that, he had served as Japan's ambassador to France.
Since taking on his position, one issue that he has put at the forefront of his agenda is Holocaust education. Matsuura recounted UNESCO's commemoration for the first time last month of International Holocaust Remembrance Day at its Paris headquarters, which was attended by Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog.
"Simone Veil, a former French minister and Auschwitz survivor, spoke about her experiences at the camp, and it was very moving," he said.
During his visit to Yad Vashem this week, Matsuura discussed joint projects UNESCO is undertaking with the Holocaust memorial museum following the resolution adopted last year by the UNESCO General Conference calling to promote awareness of Holocaust remembrance through education and to combat all forms of Holocaust denial.
"It's important to maintain the remembrance of the Holocaust, but it's equally important to teach the lessons to children and young people, with the idea of eliminating discrimination and anti-Semitism," he said.
"That's what we must learn from Holocaust remembrance. So we're going to cooperate with Yad Vashem to develop education programs and materials to be used in schools."
When asked if there was resistance to the resolution from Arab countries, Matsuura pointed out that it was adopted unanimously by representatives of the 193 UNESCO member states. However, he admitted there had been opposition.
"There was a feeling among some countries that it wasn't fair to just concentrate on the Holocaust, when there were other genocides. But we think that the Holocaust must stand alone."