Analysis: Losing at UNESCO isn’t everything

Yes, Israel lost Tuesday’s vote, but the trend is definitely headed in the right direction.

UNESCO headquarters (photo credit: REUTERS)
UNESCO headquarters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sometimes the final score does not tell the whole story.
PM Netanyahu reacting to UNESCO resolution (credit: REUTERS)
UNESCO’s vote on Tuesday – another aimed at undermining Israel’s control over Jerusalem – is one of those times.
Yes, the resolution passed.
But its practical significance is null, and the resolution itself is the most tepid on the subject to gain passage in years, with only 38% of UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board voting for it. Only 22 states voted for, while 10 voted against, 23 abstained and three were absent.
For comparison’s sake, last April’s vote on what was, from Israel’s point of view, a far more egregious resolution – not acknowledging the historical Jewish connection to the Temple Mount – passed by a count of 33 to 6, with 17 abstentions and two no-shows, a majority of 58%.
Yes, Israel lost Tuesday’s vote, but the trend is definitely headed in the right direction.
The Palestinians, aware of that trend in the international forum, tried – according to diplomatic officials – to come up with a resolution on Jerusalem that the entire European Union could support, or at least from which most could abstain.
In the vote last April, four EU countries voted for, two against and another five abstained.
In another UNES CO resolution in November, five voted against and six abstained. This time, the Palestinians hoped that they could come up with language that all the EU states could either support or abstain on.
Against Israel’s wishes, Germany took the lead in these negotiations.
Israel preferred a resolution with extreme language, which would then be impossible for the Europeans to support or remain neutral on. And the Germans did succeed in watering down the resolution considerably, to the point where it “even” acknowledged that the city is holy to the three monotheistic religions, recognizing some kind of Jewish connection the city.
What was never clear to the Palestinians, however, was the price Europeans would pay for the watered-down resolution. Would the EU countries actually support it, or abstain? Israel, in the meantime, kept pressure on its friends in the EU to vote against, saying that even though the text was watered down, it was still problematic. Israel’s ambassadors worked hard on the issue, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called a number of heads of state and foreign ministers.
On Friday it appeared all the EU countries would abstain, but then Sweden – the most problematic EU country for Israel – let it be known that it would vote for the resolution.
This meant there would be no consensus, that there was a breach in the EU wall. As a result, other countries felt free to vote on their own.
Italy was the first to announce on Tuesday morning that it would vote against. Italy was followed by Lithuania, the Netherlands and Greece.
Even Germany, seeing where things were going, decided to vote against the resolution it had helped to negotiate.
Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said that Germany’s about-face shows that – even with the tension between them over the settlement issue and despite the mini-crisis sparked by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s decision last week to meet with the far-left NGO Breaking the Silence – the Germans, because of feeling a sense of responsibility toward Israel, do not want to be seen inside the EU as belonging to the camp that is very critical of Israel.
Only Sweden voted for the resolution and Germany would not want to be perceived as being in the same camp with Sweden regarding Israel.
Nor does it want to be aligned with France and Spain, countries very critical of Israel that abstained. Another abstention – and one Jerusalem is having difficulty figuring out – is Estonia, which voted for Israel on the previous two UNESCO resolutions.
All told, 10 countries went from supporting an anti-Israel Jerusalem resolution in UNESCO last May to abstaining this time around. Those countries are: Argentina, the Dominican Republic, France, Guinea, India, Mexico, Mozambique, Slovenia, Spain and Sri Lanka. Togo went from supporting the resolution to voting against.
In addition to Togo, four other countries that abstained previously voted for Israel this time: Italy, Greece, Paraguay and Ukraine.
These vote shifts reflect Israel’s strengthening bilateral relations with a number of these nations. For instance, a strong bloc of pro-Israel countries in southern Europe and the Balkans has emerged that is no longer shy about demonstrating their support in multilateral forums. This bloc is made up of Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.
Ukraine’s vote was interesting, because Kiev incurred Israel’s anger after it voted for the anti-settlement UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in December. As a result of that vote, Israel disinvited it’s prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, who was due for a visit. That visit has since been rescheduled to take place in two weeks and this vote is a sign that relations are back on track.
India’s vote is also seen as significant in Jerusalem. India is a country that only of late has sporadically taken to changing what for decades was a reflex to vote against Israel in all international forums, and this is an indication that a new pattern of abstaining is setting in. What is even more significant is that India was willing to abstain, even though at first they argued to vote for the resolution because it was so watered down.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to visit Israel in July, and this vote is partly seen as an Indian gesture before that visit, but is also a sign of how significantly relations with New Delhi have developed.
Sri Lanka’s abstention was also seen as significant, as it too argued that the resolution was sufficiently weak to enable them to vote for it.
That an African country, Togo, voted for Israel is of great diplomatic significance, widening the circle of those countries beyond North America and Europe willing to vote for Israel.
Togo, which is scheduled to host an Israeli-African summit in the fall has – along with Rwanda – emerged as Israel’s closest friend in Africa. Israel had hoped for Kenya’s support, but had to suffice with an abstention.
In the end, eight Sub-Saharan states either voted for or abstained, while six voted against Israel. This is in sharp contrast to the situation last year, when nine of the Sub-Saharan states voted against Israel, four abstained and one was absent. Of the six who voted against Israel this time, two of them – Chad and Sudan – have no diplomatic relations with Israel. Three others – Senegal, Nigeria and Mauritius – have Muslim leaders.
But there were disappointments as well. There was some hope that Russia, which last month recognized west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, would have at least abstained, something that diplomatic sources said Moscow might have done had the text been similar to what it was a year ago.
Israel was also in close contact with Brazil, trying to sway it to alter its reflex to vote against the Jewish state in multilateral forums. Israel failed with Brazil, but the fact that Paraguay supported Israel and that Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Mexico all abstained – three countries who voted for the resolution against Israel last year – was seen as making inroads into Latin America.
Israel was also disappointed with Vietnam, a country with whom it has strong bilateral ties, but which consistently votes against Israel.