The heated race to lead the UN's educational, scientific and cultural agency got underway in Paris on Monday, with the leading contender - Egypt's Farouk Hosny - embroiled in a controversy over anti-Israel comments.
Hosny, Egypt's culture minister for more than two decades, is one of nine candidates looking to succeed Japan's Koichiro Matsuura as director general of UNESCO. The 58 nations that make up the agency's executive council convened in Paris for the first round of voting, set for September 17.
Critics say he is unfit for the job because of anti-Israel comments he has made, including a statement made last May that he would burn Hebrew texts. "I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt," he said, during an exchange in Parliament with Muslim Brotherhood legislators.
"He does not deserve to be an international high official as the director of UNESCO," Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "A man who said what he said, his position on the Middle East is very, very extreme."
Indeed, opposition to Hosny's candidacy has been escalating since May, when Wiesel and French intellectuals Bernard-Henri Lévy and Claude Lanzmanndenounced Hosny in an op-ed in Le Monde, calling him "a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds."
Citing past comments that amounted to an "anthology of hate and terror," they wrote, "the international community must spare itself the shame of appointing Farouk Hosny to the post of Unesco director general."
Hosny has personally refuted claims against him, writing on his Web site that his comment about burning Israeli books should be seen in context.
"Do not look at one sentence," he urged, calling himself a "man of peace."
"I clearly regret the words said and which I could have justified as being uttered under the tension and provocation of the discussion at the time. However, I will not take that as an excuse. This is neither my nature, nor what I believe in," he wrote.
"Unfortunately my adversaries took advantage of this to attribute negative things to me. Nothing is more abhorrent to me than racism, rejection of the other or a desire to discredit any human culture, including the Jewish culture."
In recent months, Hosny has said Egypt's culture ministry would translate literary works by Amoz Oz and David Grossman.
But the apology has done little to quell opposition, and Wiesel called it a political ploy and said he, Levy and Lanzmann were penning another opinion piece.
Officials at Israel's mission to the UN were not immediately available for comment, but in May, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reversed Israel's opposition to Hosny's candidacy.
Officials at the US State Department declined to disclose their support or opposition to Hosny as a candidate. "As is common practice, the United States does not disclose its candidate preference in secret ballot elections," a spokesperson said last week.
But American officials are seeking a UNESCO chief with "consensus-building skills" and "a demonstrated commitment to UNESCO's core principles," the spokesperson said. "The United States cares deeply about the outcome of this election."
On Monday, the organization Reporters Without Bordersjoined the chorus of voices opposing Hosny. In a statement, the organization said Hosny's record was at odds with UNESCO's mandate to promote free expression and press freedom: "Farouk Hosny needs to show that he is committed to these values, something he has not managed to do during the past 25 years."
Others defended him, however. In a statement, the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association in Israel praised Hosny for his agreement to establish a museum of Egyptian Jewish heritage in Cairo, as well as a promise to allow copies of archives maintained by Jewish communities to be deposited for free access at the Egyptian National Library.