ANALYSIS: Has Israel shot itself in the foot by boycotting UNESCO?

At UNESCO, just like all other UN bodies, Israel's situation is akin to that of David fighting the mighty giant Goliath, armed only with a slingshot.

Jews at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron over the Passover holiday (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Jews at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron over the Passover holiday
UNESCO or a broken toilet?
When faced with this fictional dilemma last year, former Israeli ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen went with the toilet.
He staged a walk-out in the middle of a speech he was delivering at a UNESCO meeting in July 2017, telling the startled member states his plumber was waiting.
There wasn’t anything actually wrong with his toilet.
It was a spontaneous antic designed to make the point that meeting his plumber over toilet troubles, even fantasy ones, would have more impact than any speech he could deliver to the World Heritage Committee.
The committee had just voted to ascribe the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Palestine, with a focus on the period of its Muslim history, rather than its Jewish biblical roots.
The vote, was just one of the scores of battles Israel has lost in its diplomatic warfare with the Palestinians at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
At UNESCO, just like all other UN bodies, including the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, Israel situation is akin to that of David fighting the mighty giant Goliath, armed only with a slingshot.
It does not stand a chance in forums where the Palestinians have an automatic majority in their favor. At best, it has settled for what it calls the moral majority, which is translates to the support of key Western and European countries. In many instances, that support is indirect, with countries abstaining to show displeasure, rather than standing with Israel outright.
One of the most bitter and highly publicized battles over the last three or four years has been the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians for cultural and historical sovereignty over sites in Hebron and Jerusalem.
Most prominent has been Israel’s attempt to stop the Palestinians from designating the Temple Mount solely as a religious Islamic site and referencing it only by the its Muslim name of al-Haram al-Sharif.
In 2017, the United States, which has been Israel’s strongest champion at the UN, called it quits at UNESCO with an end date of December 31, 2018.
Israel followed suit. The US decision left Israel almost no choice. It could hardly stay in while the US exits on its behalf.
But it underscores the dilemma Israel often finds itself in – whether it is best to boycott a situation that has become akin to a kangaroo court for Israel or to stay and even though failure is assured.
In 2004, Israel boycotted the International Court of Justice hearing at The Hague on the legality of its security barrier. It similarly has refused to participate in all Agenda Item 7 debates, to protest the fact the UNHRC is mandate to discuss Israel human rights abuses at every session. No such mandate has been leveled against any other country.
Israel has also severed and then restored its ties with the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In the last year, with the help of the US and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, a compromise position was found with regard to the Jerusalem resolutions at UNESCO executive board, which meets twice a year. But that has not stopped the UN General Assembly from disavowing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. In all, the UN General Assembly passed 21 anti-Israel resolutions this year. It did so in spite of Israel’s vigorous presence in New York and the support of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.
Statistics at UNESCO are equally damning, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu counting the passage of 71 resolutions against Israel since 2009.
But Israel’s former ambassador to UNESCO Yitzhak Eldan, who served from 2001 to 2003, said it is better to engage than to abandon the struggle.
“I do not believe in the diplomacy of the empty chair,” he said. “Diplomacy today is multilateral and Israel must engage in the spheres where it can interact with diplomats from all over the world.
The United States has the “luxury” of disengaging, but Israel is too small for that tactic and can not afford to be isolated, he explained.
“Because of our unique situation,” he said, “we should be present to defend our position.”
The UN is a good stage for Israeli diplomats to sit and discuss issues with their peers, he said.
A presence at the UN, including UNESCO, also allows Israel to advance its agenda on other issues that have nothing to do with the conflict with the Palestinians, he said.
With its exit from UNESCO, he said, “Israel has shot itself in the foot.”