In a 24-6 vote, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a resolution that denies Jewish ties to its most holy religious sites: the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the vote stating: “The theater of the absurd continues at the UN.”
“Today UNESCO adopted its second decision this year denying the Jewish people’s connection to the Temple Mount, our holiest site for more than 3,000 years,” he said. “What’s next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock ‘n’ roll?”
Twenty-six nations abstained from the vote and two were absent.
The six countries that voted in support of Israel were the United States, Great Britain, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Germany and Estonia.
Graphic of which countries voted for, against, abstained and were absent (Credit: MFA)
A senior US administration official chastised the vote taken by UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board and told The Jerusalem Post that the US “will not hesitate to use our vote at the current board meeting to oppose these resolutions.”
The Palestinian Authority, however, welcomed the results.
The official spokesman of the Palestinian Presidency Nabil Abu Rudeinah said on Thursday evening that the continued international decisions against the occupation and its policy including that of UNESCO regarding Jerusalem and the al-Aksa Mosque form a clear message from the international community that it does not agree with the policies that protect the occupation and contribute to the creation of chaos and instability.
In 2015, the Palestinians, who have been recognized by UNESCO as a member state since 2011, began a drive to change the language with which that international body refers to the Temple Mount area, known to Muslims the Al-Haram Al Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary).
Initially they tried and failed to have it declared a solely Muslim site. Since then, they have submitted resolutions on Jerusalem at every possible UNESCO meeting, that uses only the Muslims terms for the Temple Mount area and its adjacent Western Wall.
UNESCO’s Executive Board passed such a resolution last April and its 21-member World Heritage Committee had been poised to do so again in July in Istanbul.
That vote was delayed until October 24-26, when the failed Turkish coup, cut the meeting short.
Since then a sentence has been inserted into the text that mentions that Jerusalem and its Old City walls are holy to all three religions; Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
The Western Wall is mentioned twice in quotes. Otherwise it was referenced in the text by its Muslim name of the Buraq Plaza.
Thursday’s vote was taken by UNESCO’s 58-member Program and External Relations Commission in advance of its ratification next Monday or Tuesday by the UNESCO Executive Board, which is made up of the same member states.
UNESCO outgoing director-general Irina Bokova has spoken against such resolutions, but ultimately the matter lies in the hands of the member states.
In the aftermath of Thursday’s UNESCO vote, both Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen and outgoing Foreign Ministry director- general Dore Gold focused on the changes in the voting roster since the executive board last approved such a resolution in Paris in April.
Shama-Hacohen and the Foreign Ministry had worked hard in advance of the vote to lobby member states to stand with Israel.
Gold, who resigned his position on Thursday effective immediately, said that the UNESCO vote was a “going away present.”
Ten countries which voted for the resolution the last time it came before UNESCO for a vote, abstained this time around, Gold said.
What that means, he said, is that more countries voted for Israel or abstained, than voted against Israel.
The 10 countries which switched their vote from last time were France, Sweden, Slovenia, Spain, Argentina, India, Sri Lanka, Togo, Guinea and Ghana.
Gold signed documents over the summer with Guinean officials formally reestablishing diplomatic ties.
He also noted the significance of India and Argentina switching their votes and not voting against Israel, as they have traditionally done.
“What this indicates is that things are shifting for Israel,” Gold said. “You are not going to get a total re-definition about how states are going to vote in the UN system in a matter of a few months, but a new trend is clear, which I hope Israel can build upon in the months and years ahead.”
Gold noted that none of the European countries voted for the resolution.
Asked how getting four European countries to abstain can be considered a victory, inasmuch as the resolution detaches any Jewish connection from Jerusalem, Gold said the drafters of the resolution included a sentence saying that the city is important to all three monotheistic faiths. Those countries that abstained – rather than vote against it – could point to that wording as not erasing completely Jewish ties to the capital.
“We appreciate the shift of 10 countries in the direction of abstaining,” he said. Gold added that this is not a binding UNESCO resolution, and that UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said that since there was no consensus around the resolution, she will not implement it.
The PA’s Foreign Ministry said, “We regret that few countries succumbed to the PR bullying orchestrated by Israel, which shifted the focus from Israel's illegal and colonial actions in occupied East Jerusalem to issues irrelevant to the content and objectives of the resolutions, which aims to put an end to Israel's dangerous and illegal actions against holy sites in Jerusalem and Palestinian rights, including the right to worship.
“Palestine will continue to defend the rights of our people through all available legal and diplomatic avenues, including UN organizations. Our peaceful agenda will not be derailed by propaganda, nor will our tolerance and adherence to international law be altered by fallacies and cynical spin,” the PA Foreign Ministry said.
Netanyahu suggested that the Bible aside, UNESCO members should visit the Arch of Titus in Rome.
“On it one can see what the Romans brought back to Rome after they destroyed and looted the Second Temple on the Temple Mount 2,000 years ago. There, engraved on the Arch of Titus, is the seven-branched menorah that is the symbol of the Jewish People, and I remind you, is also the symbol of the Jewish state today,” he said.
“Soon, UNESCO will say that the Emperor Titus engaged in Zionist propaganda,” Netanyahu said.
“To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. By this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost what little legitimacy it had left,” Netanyahu added.
The senior US official said the vote showed that the US, which withdrew its funding from UNESCO in 2011 in response to acceptance of Palestine as a state, must become more involved in the organization.
“The recurring highly politicized use of the UNESCO executive board meetings only further underscores the urgent need for the United States to restore its leadership at UNESCO, which has been considerably undercut since the United States ceased funding UNESCO in 2011.”
“We will continue to explore with Congress options for resuming payment of our dues, which will allow the United States to play a full role in this organization going forward and advance UNESCO’s work on issues like Holocaust education and countering terrorist narratives.”
The votes broke out in this way.
Those who supported the motion included Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chad, China, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam.
Nations that abstained from the vote were: Albania, Argentina, Cameroon, Cote de’Ivoire, El Salvador, Spain, France, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Haiti, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Uganda, Paraguay, South Korea, St. Kits and Nevis, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Togo, Trinidad and Ukraine.
Absent countries included Serbia and Turkmenistan;
Those who opposed the resolution were: the US, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Germany and Estonia voted against the motion.