Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama HaCohen’s cellphone started ringing almost immediately after the World Heritage Committee last Friday agreed to inscribe the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Hebron’s old town as a World Heritage site.
Its musical notes resounded loudly to the point of distraction, causing him to pause his speech to the WHC.
Spontaneously, as Channel 10 reporter Noam Vardi called, he decided to use the moment for a bit of theatrics.
“Mr. Chairman. It’s my plumber in my apartment in Paris. This is a huge problem in my toilet, and it is much more important than the decision you just adopted,” he said, abruptly ending his speech.
The ambassador sat down to some laughter and a few boos from the audience at the 21-member WHC, which met in Krakow, Poland, from July 2 to July 12 to inscribe 21 sites onto its World Heritage List.
It was not how he imagined the day would turn out when he walked into the room a few hours earlier. He had two speeches he had written out – one for victory, the other for defeat.
The stakes were high because Israel feared the inscription negated Jewish ties to the biblical site, whereas the Palestinians saw it as a statement against the “occupation” and a show of support for their Muslim heritage.
That Shama HaCohen believed the WHC might stand with Israel with regard to Hebron spoke to how much progress Israel has made when it comes to combating the UN’s pro-Palestinian majority.
This was capped by a July 4 vote disavowing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, which passed even though it lacked a majority.
The 10-3 vote, with eight abstentions, was seen as a precursor to Friday’s vote to inscribe Hebron’s old town and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as a Palestinian heritage site.
All Shama HaCohen had to do was move one country from “yes” to a “maybe” or, better yet, a “no.”
He thought that one of the Arab countries on the committee could be against the resolution, but would vote that way only if there were a secret ballot, where ballots were cast out of sight, behind a screen.
He believed he had secured the WHC secretariat’s agreement to use such a screen and the help of two countries to propose a secret ballot. On top of that, he had also convinced the secretariat to include a paragraph in the resolution noting the objections to the inscription of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the professional body that evaluates the World Heritage sites.
But the careful orchestration went haywire almost from the start. Lebanon and Cuba immediately called for the amended text to be rejected, explaining that it was an “in-acceptable” breach of procedure to change the text in this way.
“The secretariat does not have the right to manipulate the decision at the last minute,” Lebanon’s representative said.
The WHC then voted to reject that text, which had quoted the section of the ICOMOS report stating that, based on criteria II, IV and VI, the PA’s submission had not “justified consideration” for inscription.
ICOMOS had been concerned that the PA submission for Hebron’s old town and the Tomb of the Patriarchs had focused too narrowly on Hebron’s Muslim history, by mostly targeting the Mamluk era.
It felt that Hebron’s unique attribute was its 3,000-year-history and its ties to three monotheistic religions.
None of those reservations were evident in the text the committee voted on that had been forward by Lebanon, Cuba and Kuwait. It stated that “the nominated property unquestionably justified criteria (II), (IV) and (VI) as well as conditions of integrity and authenticity.”
The situation appeared to swing a bit in Israel’s favor when the WHC rejected a bid by Lebanon and Cuba for a public vote and instead stood by the need for a secret ballot.
Then it all fell apart. According to Shama HaCohen, the secretariat reneged on its agreement with him to put the voters behind a screen and instead allowed the member states to fill out the forms at their seats.
The voting procedure scared away at least one country that had said it would support Israel, but did not allow for full disclosure of the votes.
Frustrated and angry, he walked up to the secretariat’s table twice to argue the point.
But in the end, that country was not the only vote Israel lost. Instead of picking up support, it fell back, with a 12-3 vote and 6 abstentions.
“It’s not a secret ballot. We talked with you,” Shama HaCohen said, shaking his finger as his voice rose.
Both times he withdrew to his seat when security was called to oust him from the room.
Shama HaCohen later released a photograph of a text message that he said he had received from that country’s representative: “Sorry for today, it was too heated. It is difficult to say it was a secret vote,” read the text.
Shama HaCohen responded, “I know my friend. For me its like u did it.”
“No choice,” the representative wrote back.
It was the latest defeat in the increasingly bitter battle between Israelis and Palestinians for cultural and historical recognition at UNESCO, under whose auspices the World Heritage Committee operates.
Like all UN bodies, UNESCO has an automatic anti-Israel majority. It has never been a sympathetic arena for Israel, which joined the organization in 1949.
UNESCO first recognized the PLO in 1974 and granted membership to the “State of Palestine” in 2011.
The US cited UNESCO’s anti-Israel activity as one of the many reasons, along with the organization’s pro-Soviet leanings, that it withdrew from the organization in 1984. The US did not restore membership until 2003.
Both Israel and the US halted funding to UNESCO in the aftermath of the 2011 vote on Palestinian statehood.
Israel now owes UNESCO over $8 million, and, like the US, it has restricted voting rights. Already last year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett suspended professional ties between Israel and UNESCO, while maintaining diplomatic contact.
Until full relations are restored, Shama HaCohen said, it could be difficult in the future for Israel to inscribe sites onto the World Heritage List.
Since approving the World Heritage Convention in 1999, Israel has inscribed nine World Heritage sites, including Masada. But it has a formal tentative list of 18 additional areas it hopes will be included in the future.
To date, all of its sites have been within the pre-1967 lines, partially because it does not want to politicize the process, and because it is certain that such requests would be rejected, said Shama HaCohen.
“We’re trying to fight the politicization,” he added.
Since 2011, the PA has registered three sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger, including Hebron, thereby allowing it to make use of a special fast-tracked procedure for what is otherwise a lengthy bureaucratic process.
In his fantasy moment, Shama HaCohen would like to see both Israelis and Palestinians jointly register sites such as Hebron. But such a vision prior to a final-status agreement would not be possible, because of the PA’s statehood status at the UN.
Any joint submission by Israel would be seen as tacit approval of Palestinian statehood, he said.
Instead, what is more likely is that this battle for cultural heritage will continue, as the PA makes plans to move down its list of nine tentative sites, including Jericho and the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
In addition, three times a year, Jewish ties to Hebron will now be a matter for UNESCO debate. The World Heritage Committee and the executive board will now pass resolutions challenging those ties, just as they already do with Jewish links to Jerusalem.
The Hebron vote set up a particularly vicious verbal debate in Israel.
On Wednesday Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said of the Palestinians in the Knesset plenum: “You are stealing Jewish history.”
She held up the Bible as an example of authentic Jewish history, and then the mock book of Palestinian history with empty pages, which had been briefly for sale on Amazon.
“Do you know why it’s empty? Because you have no kings and no heritage sites,” she said.
“David, Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are Jewish forefathers; you won’t succeed in their Islamization,” she said.
MK Abdel-Hakim Haj Yahya retorted, “First of all, we are talking about our forefather Abraham, not your forefather. He is not the father of the Jews.
“All the prophets are Muslim, or they would not be prophets,” he said.
In Paris, Shama HaCohen said he believes that this type of narrative duel will continue unabated, until the conflict ends.
“Once there is a peace deal, we won’t see these kinds of proposal,” he said.