When diplomatic officials in Jerusalem recently surveyed the list of 21 countries that make up UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) in an effort to see who might soften the blow of yet another anti-Israel resolution, there was little there to give much hope.
The list did not include any of those countries that Israel traditionally can count on for diplomatic assistance and cover in international forums.
The US only has observer status on the body. Australia was not on the committee, nor was Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, nor any of those small pro-Israel Pacific Island states such as the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia.
Instead, of the 21 countries on the WHC, there were three Arab countries (Kuwait, Lebanon and Tunisia), five states with no diplomatic ties with Israel (the three Arab countries plus Cuba and Indonesia), and fully eight majority-Muslim nations.
No country on the list jumped out as one that would buck the group-think and take a stand for Israel.
And then Croatia and Tanzania stepped forward.
Croatia seemed a somewhat logical choice. Jerusalem has good relations with Croatia, the last country to join the EU. It is numbered among those former Soviet-bloc countries inside the EU which – when that 28-member organization splits on its Israel votes – usually casts a ballot either with Israel, or abstains (as opposed to countries like Malta, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Sweden and – often – France, which generally vote against). As such, Zagreb was a logical go-to address for Jerusalem.
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But Tanzania? Who saw that coming? Since when does Jerusalem have such sterling ties with that east African country? Since, well, the election last October of a new president, John Magufuli. Since that time, he has made clear that he is keen on putting the country – which according to estimates is about 60% Christian and 30% Muslim – on a different track. As a staunchly believing Christian, he sees Israel as a natural ally and – since assuming office – has sent Israel strong signals of an interest in significantly upgrading ties.
Tanzania’s foreign minister was one of the seven African leaders Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at a summit in Uganda last July, and Dar es Salaam expressed interest in opening an embassy in Tel Aviv.
On Wednesday, Tanzania proved its mettle.
According to diplomatic officials, Netanyahu spoke in recent days to both Magufuli and Croatian leaders and explained the need to act against the motion. And they did.
It was Croatia and Tanzania – again, not countries Israel generally turns to for diplomatic assistance – that forced a secret vote on the issue at the WHC meeting in Paris on Wednesday.
By so doing, they infuriated the Palestinians and their supporters in the body who wanted to ram the resolution through by “consensus.”
But instead of a consensus on a motion that expunges any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount by only referring to it by its Arabic names, the resolution passed by a vote of 10 to 2, with eight abstentions and Jamaica not in the hall for the vote.
A similar text was adopted by UNESCO’s Executive Board two weeks earlier by a vote of 24 to 6, with 26 abstentions and two no-shows.
It is obvious why the Palestinians wanted a consensus – that would have reinforced the impression that the international community was of one mind on the issue. Equally obvious was why Israel wanted a vote, because it wanted to demonstrate that the automatic, reflexive anti-Israel majority in the UN was beginning to crumble.
And chipping away at this automatic, anti-Israel bloc at the UN has emerged in recent months as a high-priority element of Netanyahu’s foreign policy. He spoke of it publicly for the first time at the Paris climate conference last November, when he said he expected countries who are friendly to Israel to reflect that friendliness in votes in international fora.
The time has come, Netanyahu told reporters then, for the friendship and cooperation of countries with good bilateral ties with Israel to come out in votes in international institutions.
“You will hear this [demand] more and more – this is our natural expectation.”
He repeatedly spoke about this during his visit in July to Africa, saying that one of his aims by going to the continent was to widen “our circle of ties. If we succeed in making inroads with the 54 countries of Africa, the automatic majority against Israel would fall by the wayside.”
And then he repeated this goal in September in a speech to the UN’s General Assembly.
“What I’m about to say is going to shock you: Israel has a bright future at the UN,” he stated at the outset of his address. “When it comes to Israel at the UN, you’d probably think nothing will ever change, right? Well think again. You see, everything will change, and a lot sooner than you think. The change will happen in this hall, because back home, your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes toward Israel. And sooner or later, that’s going to change the way you vote on Israel at the UN.”
CASUAL OBSERVERS may think that the twin UNESCO votes this month on Jerusalem belie Netanyahu’s rosy prediction.
And, let there be no mistake, Israel did indeed lose both votes.
And it lost those votes after putting up a serious diplomatic fight.
But still, what is also clear from those votes is that the number of countries that can be counted on to reflexively raise their hands in votes against Israel is shrinking. Or as one diplomatic source said, “there is an important consensus of countries that don’t like this, and that is significant.”
When the UNESCO Executive Board voted in April on an anti-Israel Jerusalem resolution, 33 countries voted in favor, six against, 17 abstained and two were absent. All told, 33 – or a majority of the 58-member body – voted for the measure.
Just six months later, the Palestinians could not muster a majority in the same body on a similar measure, with more countries – 34 – either abstaining, voting against or not showing up, than voting for the resolution.
That same pattern repeated itself this week as well, when more countries didn’t vote for the resolution (11), than who did (10).
By comparison, a similar – but even more harshly written resolution – passed in the WHC last year by a larger margin, with 13 voting for it, and eight either abstaining, voting against, or not present. And the overall composition of the WHC last year was more favorably inclined toward Israel.
Five years ago this month, when then French President Nicolas Sarkozy led a successful push to have UNESCO accept “Palestine” as a full member state, then Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP that the Palestinians would use their newfound status not to promote matters of education, culture and science – which are the ostensible aims of the organization – but rather to “hijack” the organization as a vehicle for anti-Israel propaganda.
Every meeting, every forum, every event, he said, will be used by the Palestinians to attack Israel. His words were prescient, and the reason UNESCO has turned into one of the central battlegrounds against Israel has to do with the Palestinian status in that organization, the only UN organization where it is a full member state.
In other organizations, other countries can – on their behalf – promote anti-Israel Palestinian resolutions, and they do so on a regular basis. But it can be done even more frequently when the Palestinians themselves are a full member of the organization.
However, if the Palestinians had hoped to use these measures time and again in UNESCO to reinforce the notion of Israel’s isolation, the recent votes have boomeranged, showing that more and more countries – some of them, like Tanzania, third-world countries that the Palestinians could count on for diplomatic support in the past – will no longer reflexively do their bidding.
The trend that emerged from this month’s votes at UNESCO supports Netanyahu’s thesis that the situation inside international organizations is changing. While this change might be a slow train, not an express, it is -- at long last -- at least on the tracks.
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