Israel’s shortsighted UNESCO decision in focus amid US election - analysis

Israel had a difficult relationship with UNESCO in 2017 when the organization recognized the Old City of Hebron as a World Heritage Site.

A general view of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The United States and Israel officially left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in January 2019. It came after years of Israel’s difficult relations with the UN body, as the organization appeared to be biased in favor of the Palestinians.
But that decision to leave now puts Israel in an awkward position, as the US is expected to return to the organization when the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden takes over the White House with a more multilateral approach, compared to the go-it-alone policies of outgoing President Donald Trump.
Israel had a difficult relationship with UNESCO in 2017 when the organization recognized the Old City of Hebron as a World Heritage Site, but this recognition appeared to ignore and diminish the Jewish history of Hebron and the holy site of the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The UN recognition concentrated more on the Ottoman and Mamluk era rather than the older Jewish sites in the city, which appeared out of line with UNESCO’s mission being cultural and educational, not political.
Israel slammed UNESCO when it declared the Jewish state to be an “occupying power.” In retaliation, Israel cut its funding to the body – and in November 2017, it moved to cut its ties and indicated that it would not be the only country to do so.
The US supported Israel, and this dovetailed with Trump’s overall skepticism of international organizations and US membership in partnerships, from the TransPacific Partnership to NATO and WHO.
The decision to leave came despite UNESCO appointing a new leader, France’s former culture minister Audrey Azoulay, who is Jewish. She pleaded with Jerusalem not to leave. Israel had been a member of the organization since 1949; in the last two decades, it recognized nine sites in Israel, contributing to preserving and documenting the many layers of its history, including Jewish heritage in the land.
But UNESCO had been more toxic to Israel during the era of Azoulay’s predecessor, Irina Bokova, who led it from 2009 to 2017 – even though she sought to reassure that the political statements by pro-Palestinian members would not erase the Jewish history of Jerusalem or other areas.
UNESCO WAS suffering from the same problems as other UN bodies that have often been held at the whim of many states who are often biased toward the Palestinians.
However, UNESCO officials and the organization itself worked closely with Israel, and the Israeli sites inside the Green Line. What was controversial were decisions over Jerusalem and Hebron and Battir, a site the Palestinians had pushed for.
On the outskirts of Jerusalem and also having Jewish historic significance, Battir was pushed as a way to prevent the building of a section of Israel’s security barrier, and ostensibly to preserve unique agricultural terracing of the village. But since Battir’s inscription, the Palestinians have not invested in it, illustrating that their demand was pushed more for political reasons.
But instead of Israel seeking to work within the organization and trade favors with member states to get what it wanted – while using the positive aspects of UNESCO to advertise Israel’s unique sites, such as the White City of Tel Aviv and Masada – Israel decided to leave alongside Trump.
The US has many reasons to play a role in UNESCO, rather than be one of a handful of states that are not members, and this could leave Israel out in the cold.
UNESCO CURRENTLY has 193 members and, oddly, Israel will be outside it, together with Liechtenstein and Kosovo. Palestine and the Cook Islands are members, however.
This situation is an own-goal for Israel which is purposely isolating itself, apparently because the government was infatuated with Trump and wanted to please him rather than look out for its own long-term interests. It took a shortsighted approach based on the policies of one US administration, but should have instead considered that this would likely be reversed at some point. It also handed the Palestinians the gift of not having to confront Israel in the body.
Israel was one of the first members of UNESCO, and before walking out it had a dozen sites as candidates for the World Heritage Site list. These included the Sea of Galilee and sites around it, ancient synagogues, the Arbel cliff, Kibbutz Degania, Beit Shean and the White Mosque of Ramle. Now, it appears that even if Israel seeks to rejoin, those important sites, some linked to Jewish, Christian and Islamic history as well as Zionism, will not be put on the list anytime soon.
In light of the Abraham Accords, which is bridging gaps across the Middle East and may see many tourists from the Gulf arrive in Israel, the decision appears to make even less sense considering that Gulf tourists will be further impressed with Israeli sites that have UNESCO site status.
Biden is familiar with UNESCO; his wife, Jill Biden, helped launch a teaching initiative aimed at women in 2016. It is unclear if Israel will reconsider its withdrawal – but if it does, it will be in the position of having to beg to be allowed back into a UN body that it left, having gained absolutely nothing.
If Israel chooses to stay out of UNESCO, it will be leaving the door wide open for the Palestinians to achieve whatever they want. Already, they are using UNESCO to seek the return of artifacts and to oppose Israeli plans in Jerusalem.