Israel nixes UNESCO J'lem delegation at last minute

Foreign Ministry says Palestinians violated agreement: "This was to be a purely professional, not a political visit.”

unesco (photo credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
(photo credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
Israel called off a planned visit by a technical delegation from UNESCO on Monday to inspect conservation work in Jerusalem’s Old City, saying that the Palestinians had “politicized” the delegation.
“The delegation as a delegation has been postponed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said.
A Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah said that the PA leadership was unaware of any Israeli decision to cancel the team’s mission and was checking with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is headquartered in Paris.
“The visit of the UNESCO mission is a preface for the victory of Palestinian and Arab diplomacy,” the PA’s Ministry of Information in Ramallah said.
UNESCO’s offices in Paris were closed Monday because it was a French national holiday, but Sue Williams, the organization’s spokeswoman, emailed a response to a Jerusalem Post query confirming that the delegation had indeed been postponed.
She wrote that she had no other information.
“The Palestinians violated all the agreements we had with UNESCO: that this was to be a purely professional, not a political visit,” Hirschson said, saying they added a “slew” of political elements into the visit.
Another diplomatic official said Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki characterized the team as an investigative committee to examine Israeli steps in Jerusalem, while PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s adviser on Jerusalem, Ahmed al-Ruweidi, tied the delegation’s visit to the Temple Mount.
Maliki last week described the UNESCO mission as a “historic achievement that would oblige Israel to protect holy sites and refrain from harming them.”
Hirschson said that contrary to an agreement brokered in April at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, the PA was now insisting on taking the delegation to the Temple Mount and meeting with Palestinian political personalities, not just “engineers, architects and professional people.”
“We have said this was unacceptable” he said. “Hopefully, the delegation is postponed and not cancelled.”
The last-minute postponement, announced Sunday by Israel’s representation to UNESCO in Paris, even caught the Foreign Ministry by surprise, with ministry officials saying on Sunday that members of the delegation had arrived, not knowing the four-man team’s arrival was indeed called off.
The agreement in April that paved the way for the delegation’s visit stated that Israel would allow the UNESCO contingent to inspect preservation and conservation work at 18 sites in the Old City – six synagogues, six mosques and six churches – in exchange for a Palestinian agreement to postpone five anti-Israel resolutions pending before UNESCO’s board meeting that month.
According to Israel, the agreement stipulated that the delegation was not to go to the Temple Mount or deal with the controversial issue of rebuilding the Mughrabi Bridge, leading from the Western Wall Plaza to the Temple Mount.
UNESCO accepted “Palestine” as a member in 2011, in a move that led the US to cut off its annual contribution to the organization.
The UN body added the Old City to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1981, and a year later placed it on its list of “endangered” World Heritage Sites. The last monitoring mission took place in 2004, and UNESCO has been requesting a new one for the last three years.
According to a UNESCO statement, the mission’s goals were to “examine the state of conservation of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls, a World Heritage Site.”
The mission was to present its report and recommendations before the beginning of the World Heritage Committee’s annual meeting on June 1.
The agreement between Israel and the Palestinians regarding the delegation was brokered in April by the US and Russia, and trumpeted at the time as a mild diplomatic achievement. It came amid efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to create a better climate conducive to restarting talks, and part of creating that climate included getting the Palestinians to postpone anti-Israel resolutions in international forums.
Khaled Abu Toameh and Daniel K. Eisenbud contributed to this report.