Jewish candidate elected as UNESCO head, defeats 'antisemitic' Qatari diplomat

Audrey Azoulay's victory in the race comes amid a US decision to pull out from the UN agency, citing 'anti-Israel' bias.

Audrey Azoulay (photo credit: REUTERS)
Audrey Azoulay
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Pledging to restore credibility to UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay of France is set to become the first Jewish head of an organization often charged with anti-Israel bias.
In an upset, the former French culture minister bested Qatari diplomat Hamad Bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari precisely at a time when the organization was under pressure to choose its first Arab leader, receiving 30 votes to his 28 in the final round of a secret ballot election held by UNESCO’s Executive Board in Paris on Friday.
“She has all the qualifications [necessary] to make changes [at UNESCO]. She is very talented, educated and professional and has the support of one of the [world] powers, France,” said Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris Carmel Shama Hacohen.
“There is no doubt that she understands the size and complexity of the problem,” he added.
Azoulay’s candidacy is expected to be confirmed on November 10 by UNESCO’s 195 members. She would then replace outgoing director-general Irina Bokova in January.
“If I’m confirmed and brought to lead this institution, the first thing I will do is work to restore its credibility, restore the faith of its members and its efficiency so it can act on the challenges facing our world, because it is the only organization that can,” Azoulay said after the vote.
Qatar’s delegate to UNESCO, Ali Zainal, said his country accepted the results of the democratically held election.
“Qatar is always committed to UNESCO. We will never change our policy regarding the education in the world, the heritage in the world and all kind of support for UNESCO,” he said.
Azoulay appeared to have benefited from the rift in the Arab world and anti-Qatar sentiments alongside hopes that France could restore the agency’s fragile international position.
Qatar had counted on the Arab votes and the fact that no Arab had ever chaired UNESCO, yet its complicated geopolitical situation combined with a campaign championed by the Wiesenthal Center saying Kawari was antisemitic played against it.
In the end, Azoulay, whose father, Andre Azoulay, was a special adviser to the former Moroccan king Mohammed VI, also appeared to have received support from some of the Arab states, including Egypt.
Abdullah Alraisi, the head of the United Arab Emirates National Archives and an adviser to UNESCO’s Memory of the World program, said of the Kawari candidacy: “If the Qatari had won, it would have been a big scandal in the end, because everybody was talking about bribery, everybody’s talking about corruption. And we have seen it. We’ve been seeing all secret meetings here and there. This is not good, this is not healthy. In the end, we needed justice to prevail.”
Azoulay entered the race at the last moment, as a nomination of then-lame duck president François Hollande. Still, she benefited from the active support of France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, who presented her at the G20 summit in Hamburg in July to other world leaders and ordered French diplomacy to deploy considerable efforts in advancing her candidacy.
Israel did not campaign for Azoulay, whose left-wing Socialist Party background has meant that she is not perceived to be overly supportive of the Jewish state.
It’s believed that her campaign also received a boost from the US announcement on Thursday that it planned to quit UNESCO, citing anti-Israel bias. Israel immediately said it would do so, as well.
But the withdrawal will not take place until December 2018, and it is hoped that a change within the organization could sway the US to remain.
The US’s announcement “shocked everyone and gave a supportive boost to Azoulay against the Qatari, whose victory had seemed certain until then,” said Shama Hacohen.
It was perceived that if Azoulay were director-general, she would have the best chance of achieving the kind of reform that could convince the US to remain in UNESCO, he added.
Shama Hacohen said had met with Azoulay in the moments before the final vote and was so certain at that moment of her success that he congratulated her and predicted she would win by two votes.
“She was very relaxed and kind. We exchanged opinions on the burning issues of the day, and she spoke a word or two in Hebrew,” he said.
“We exchanged phone numbers and agreed that, despite the recent events, we would maintain direct and personal contact,” Shama Hacohen said.
Reuters contributed to this report.