In a dramatic upset the World Heritage Committee approved Wednesday, with less than a majority vote, a resolution that ignored Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.
Israel had feared the matter would pass by consensus, or that only a few of the 21-member states would abstain or oppose the text.
Instead, Tanzania and Croatia had asked for a secret ballot. When the votes were counted, only 10 countries had voted for the motion, two opposed it, eight abstained and one nation, Jamaica, was absent from the room.
The last minute twists and turns, were part of an Israeli bluff to counter a Palestinian threat intended to pressure WHC to pass the resolution by consensus.
The Palestinian Authority and Jordan had warned that they would strengthen the Muslim claims to the site in the resolution, unless there was a consensus vote on the existing text, which was a softer version than the one the WHC approved last year.
UNESCO resolution on Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Israel allowed them to believe they had the consensus support. Part of that strategy was the release statements to the media about how Israel expected a major loss at the WHC meeting in Paris.
Assuming that consensus support, the Palestinians and the Jordanians submitted the softer version of the resolution for a vote on Wednesday. It was only until the meeting opened, and Tanzania and Croatia called for a secret ballot, that they suddenly understood that events would not go as planed.
For over half-an-hour the Arab countries on the committee led by Lebanon and with the help of Cuba, attempted and ultimately failed to push forward a consensus motion.
The vote that then took place, was on the less contentious text.
Among the critical differences was the restoration of the Jewish terms of reference for the Western Wall, which had in past resolutions been in quotation marks or parentheses and instead the text referred to the holy Jewish site by its Muslim name of the Buraq Wall.
Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, under whose umbrella the vote took place, said that it was unclear until the very end how much support they had. In the end, he said, only the Arab states on the committee along with Cuba and Vietnam support the resolution.
According to diplomatic sources those countries who supported the resolution were: Lebanon, Cuba, Kuwait, Tunisia,
Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Angola.
Those who abstained were: Poland, Portugal, Croatia, Finland, South Korea, Burkina Faso, Peru and Zimbabwe.
Opposing it all together were Tanzania and the Philippines.
“We succeeded in surprising them (the Palestinians and the Arab states) at the last minute,” Shama-Hacohen said. “Credit for this is due to the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I want to issue a special thanks to two brave nations, Croatia and Tanzania, that lay on the fence for Israel and publicly asked for a vote, stood against the wishes of the Arab world,” Shama-Hacohen said. He also thanked the United States, for the significant role that it played.
“With respect to the content, the Arab nations had no choice but to beat an almost complete retreat on the issue of the Western Wall,” Shama-Hacohen said.
The problem is with referencing the Temple Mount solely by its Muslim name of Al Haram Al Sharif remains, he said.
“But that issue will also be solved one day and the truth will win out,” he added.
Still in addressing the WHC in Paris on Wednesday, he blasted those member states who had voted on a text that ignored Jewish ties to the Temple Mount. “You have just adopted a [resolution] against historical truth and one that stands in complete and utter contradiction to all values,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority representative in turn accused Israel of turning an issue about rights into one about religion. As the issue moves forward "it will be clear which party is trying to politicize" the issue "in a dangerous way,” the Palestinian representative said.
But the US said these resolutions "undermine support for the very legitimacy of this organization" and "urge the members to embrace an approach in which we can all work together."
The World Heritage Committee votes annually to place Jerusalem on the World Heritage in Danger list.
But the issue of referring the site in purely Muslim terms began only last year, when the Palestinians began their drive at UNESCO to reclassify Jerusalem and its Old City.
UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board approved such a similar resolution earlier this month.
On Wednesday, the Deputy Minister for Regional Cooperation Ayoub Kara (Likud) has an audience with Pope Francis and plans to raise the issue of such votes with him.
Over the weekend the International Council on Monuments and Sites spoke out against the Jerusalem resolutions.
The independent professional body, which advises UNESCO on man made World Heritage Sites, decided to speak out after a board meeting in Istanbul, according to its Vice President Gideon Koren.
It stated “that there should be a clear distinction between political controversies and scientific facts and that political disputes … and political views can not justify statements which erase basic and well known and proven historical facts,” Koren said, who is an Israeli attorney.
Top UN officials have also spoke against these resolutions including outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNESCO Executive Board chairman Michael Worbs and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.
She met on Tuesday in Parish with Shama-Hacohen, the International Legal Forum and pro-Israel non-governmental group StandWithUS.
The two NGOS presented Bokova with a global petition of 76,000 signatures from those opposed to such resolutions.
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