By Oren Drori
Over the past few years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has fallen deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole by actively participating in the Palestinian campaign to delegitimize Israel at international institutions (see prior blog post on the subject here). In the UNESCO context, the Palestinians have been trying to erase immutable facts of history—specifically, the ties between the Jewish people to Israel, our homeland—through various libelous resolutions that either try to obfuscate the Jewish connection to holy sites (for instance, only using the Arabic name for the Temple Mount or putting “Western Wall” in quotes and giving preference to an obscure Arabic name for the site), and/or falsely claiming that holy sites are in danger. A shameful, albeit steadily decreasing, number of UNESCO member states have been far too willing to go along with these outright lies.
The events of this summer, however, are a warning signal to UNESCO on the perilous route that the membership is taking. Last month, the World Heritage Committee (WHC) voted to approve an anti-Israel resolution that, among other attacks, claimed that Israel had no sovereignty over Jerusalem—the eternal heart of the Jewish people and the capital of the State of Israel—and a second decision to add Hebron’s Old City (and the Tomb of the Patriarchs within it) as a Palestinian site to the list of World Heritage Sites in danger, even though the site is in no apparent danger.
Shortly following the conclusion of the WHC session, Palestinian violence flared up in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The cause of the violence? Metal detectors.
Following a terrorist attack in which the terrorists hid their guns in al-Aqsa Mosque and then murdered two Israeli policemen, Israel closed the Temple Mount temporarily, and installed metal detectors. Similar security measures are used at holy sites throughout the world—the Vatican, Mecca, and at the Western Wall, to name a few. These installations were added to ensure that all visitors to the Temple Mount are safe, regardless of faith.
The reaction was immediate and without any proportion to reality. Muslims refused to pray at the site if they had to deign to walk through measures designed for everyone’s safety. Violent protests followed, egged on by Palestinian and Muslim leaders. Both Hamas and Fatah called for a “Day of Rage” on the next Friday. That night, at a Shabbat dinner table, a terrorist went on a rampage, murdering Yosef Salomon and his children Chaya and Elad. The violence went on for nearly two weeks, and has only recently gone down, although one would be hard-pressed to call the situation “calm” yet.
This reaction was a direct consequence of the lies told by the Palestinian leadership to its own people (and the rest of the world) for decades—that holy sites, and specific to this case, al-Aqsa Mosque—were in danger. This, plainly, is fiction. Israel does not engage in activities that endanger holy sites. To the contrary, Israel has made extraordinary efforts to discover and preserve cultural, religious and historic sites throughout the country, while making them safe and open for visitors of any faith.
The world has seen, once again, who is truly creating the instability at the holy sites—it is the side that stored weapons in a mosque of significant importance to the Muslim world (a mosque which sits upon the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism), carried out a terror attack from that site, and then erupted in violent protests and further terror when common sense security measures were introduced following the murder.
The Palestinians know that this lie is a touch point that can lead to open conflagration when manipulated, as it has on previous occasions. The question is—how far is UNESCO willing to go to push the Palestinian narrative when real world consequences are at stake? When will responsible member states at UNESCO, which, incidentally, is tasked with creating peace in the minds of humanity, take a stand against extreme historical revisionism?
We’ve seen UNESCO bodies push forward a truly absurd narrative in many previous resolutions (once even complaining that Israel was planting fake Jewish graves at a cemetery in Jerusalem). But, claiming that Israel is putting holy sites in danger is a real threat to the peace and stability in region. When UNESCO bodies accept this destructive narrative, they make the world body complicit in the explosive violence that is then borne of this lie.
This week, the World Health Assembly (WHA), the U.N. body overseeing the work of the better-known World Health Organization (WHO), voted on yet another resolution targeting Israel. Let the complete absurdity of the situation sink in: Israel, a leader in the medical field, which provides medical aid throughout the world, likely including in countries that shamefully voted in favor of the resolution, was singled out for scrutiny.
No other state was on the agenda; there were also no other WHO reports on a specific conflict situation. Not even Syria received this kind of attention—and the Assad regime has been bombing hospitals this year as part of its ongoing military campaign/humanitarian catastrophe.
At last year’s WHA, the European Union states voted en masse for the anti-Israel resolution saying it was technical in nature. Even if this were true—and it was laughably false—the very nature of having only one country-specific resolution, and having that resolution attack the sole democracy and medical leader in the Middle East region, is inherently political. More to the point, it is a symptom of the dangerous selectivity and special standards that apply only to the Jewish state at the U.N.
This year’s resolution is more bare boned than resolutions from past years, but the main problem persists, and is a grave threat to the credibility of the WHO. After this year’s vote, in which most of the EU states again voted in favor (with the notable exception of the United Kingdom voting against and abstentions by Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary), the German delegate made a statement on behalf of some of the European states that voted in favor urging the Israelis and Palestinians to work together on a text that could reach consensus. That request is bizarre and insulting—asking Israel to participate in a process where the designated end goal is a resolution that again perpetuates the singling out of the Jewish state.
The question that those that care about world health must ask is: Does the WHO/WHA want to go down the road of other politicized agencies at the U.N.?
We have seen this before, most notably at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), two agencies so well-known for being mired in obsession with Israel (UNHRC) and/or denying the history of the Jewish people (UNESCO), that the work of the entire organization is under threat of becoming delegitimized.
And, while human rights and preservation of history and culture are a vital part of our human existence, these two agencies have been problematic for a while now. The UNHRC, which has always had a special agenda item solely dedicated to attacks on Israel, was a politicized body from its birth over a decade ago. UNESCO has also had its own share of issues before. The United States stopped paying dues after UNESCO allowed a still-not-existent Palestinian state to join as a full-fledged member state, and the U.S. also refused to be a member of the organization for a long stretch of time due to what was a notoriously anti-American orientation at UNESCO in the 1980s.
The WHO, though, should be different. It must be above petty political attacks because millions of lives are at risk. We all need the WHO to improve lives and to stop the spread of communicable diseases before they become epidemics or global pandemics. Instead, the WHA stopped everything to engage in an hours-long session of speaker after speaker (mostly from dictatorships with appalling human rights records and health situations) bashing Israel. Does anyone aside from the Palestinian representatives and their allies in states hostile to Israel believe that this is the best use of the time of an expert health body?
After the vote at the WHA, the representative of the United Kingdom put it best by saying, “If we politicize the WHO, we do so at our peril.” Sadly, only six other member states had the fortitude to stand up to this politicization by voting against the resolution: Australia, Canada Guatemala, Israel, Togo and the United States.
Israel Is Strengthening Ties With Several Latin American States, But Will This Impact The Way These Countries Vote At The U.N.?
There are reasons to be optimistic about the progress of the bilateral relations between Israel and several Latin American states. Changes in the leadership of several countries, as well as a more proactive Israeli policy towards the region, are proving quite promising. On the other hand, it seems that there is still a long way to go when it comes to translating these good relations into changes in the voting patterns of some of these countries at the United Nations on resolutions involving Israel.
Let’s start with Paraguay. From the moment, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes took office in August of 2013; the relations with Israel (which had already improved during the interim government of President Franco) got a strong boost. The Paraguayan government started to distinguish itself from other voices in the region and took a principled stance every time Israeli actions were judged by other nations. During the latest Gaza war, for example, there was an attempt at a meeting of Mercosur (the economic bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela) to issue a joint communiqué strongly condemning Israeli actions. Paraguay opposed this measure. And it took similar positions in support of Israel in different international forums. Today, Paraguay abstains on almost all anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.
An important step taken by Israel to strengthen the bilateral relations with Paraguay was the decision to re-open the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion (which was closed in 2002 for budgetary reasons). This was very well received in Asuncion by both the Paraguayan government and the local Jewish community.
Three key anti-Israel resolutions were put to a vote at the General Assembly a few days ago. These are the resolutions that renew, year after year, the mandates and the funding authorizations for the following entities: 1. the Palestinian Rights Division; 2. the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; and 3. the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People. These resolutions are very important because they maintain a powerful anti-Israel propaganda apparatus that functions under U.N. auspices.
Paraguay kept its abstentions on these three anti-Israel resolutions this year. Even though these abstentions are highly appreciated, it would be desirable for Paraguay to go a step further and cast “no” votes, as abstentions unfortunately do not prevent resolutions from being approved at the General Assembly. Time will tell if Paraguay will be ready to make that positive move, in light of the increasingly close relations between this South American nation and Israel.
Israel’s relations with Peru have also improved in recent years. But Peru’s recent role at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee was a cause for concern. The Peruvian representative actively supported a draft resolution (when the Committee met in Istanbul last July) that was quite insulting to Jews, referring to the most sacred places for Judaism only by their Muslim names (it was, of course, insulting to Christians as well). The draft resolution could not be put to a vote because of the attempted coup in Turkey but when it came up again in October, Peru abstained, which clearly showed that the ambassador received instructions in this regard from the new government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who took office in late July. The outlook of the new president, a brilliant economist who spent many years in the United States, and who has Jewish roots, bears well for the progress of the bilateral relations between Israel and Peru.
Peru has abstained on these anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly for many years now, and it kept these abstentions this year. As in the case of Paraguay though, it would be desirable for Peru to start voting “no.”
The arrival of Mauricio Macri to the presidency of Argentina in December of 2015, which put an end to the 12 years of “Kirchnerismo,” opened a window of opportunity for improving this country’s bilateral relations with Israel. And the positive signs are many. One of the first things President Macri did when taking office was to nullify the shameful “pact” that the previous government had signed with Iran to “jointly investigate” the 1994 terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish Center (the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by Argentina or any other Latin American country). The president also promised to guarantee the independence of the judiciary so that the mysterious death of AMIA case Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, and the complaint that he had made against the government, are properly investigated.
Last April, the Executive Board of UNESCO approved a very troublesome anti-Israel and anti-Jewish resolution. The Argentine representative supported it but, when the resolution was taken up by the plenary last October, Argentina abstained. With regard to the three key General Assembly resolutions, since 2004, Argentina voted “for” two of these resolutions and “abstains” on one. Unfortunately, there were no changes this year in this regard.
Since Brazilian President Michel Temer took office last August, the country’s sometimes shaky relations with Israel appear to have entered a new phase. His Foreign Minister Jose Serra is close to the local Jewish community, and the government seems to be determined to get Brazil’s foreign policy a new turn. We still need to see if this will indeed happen, as Brazil’s powerful Foreign Ministry (Itamaraty) has proved over the years to be quite resistant to change. But there has been already a positive sign when it comes to Israel. Even though Brazil supported the troublesome resolution approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board last October, the Ministry issued a communiqué stating that unless the text is revised, Brazil will not support a similar resolution in the future. A small but positive step in the right direction. Brazil, however, supports, year after year, the three important General Assembly anti-Israel resolutions and, unfortunately, there were no changes this year.
Something very interesting happened in Mexico, a country that for many years has consistently voted against Israel at the United Nations and other international forums. President Enrique Peña Nieto traveled to Israel recently and promised that Mexico would not support the biased UNESCO resolution that was going to be put to a vote in October. His decision, however, was never transmitted by the career diplomats in the Foreign Ministry to Mexico’s new UNESCO representative, who happened to be Jewish. He cast a “yes” vote but not without protest. The local Jewish community then made its voice heard and Mexico (after trying unsuccessfully to modify its vote) decided to abstain in the plenary.
In addition, at the General Assembly, Mexico moved from “yes” to “abstain” on one of the three important resolutions, which is a pretty significant step.
Since President Tabaré Vasquez returned to Uruguay’s presidential office in March of 2015, that country’s relations with Israel made a turn for the better. Even though Vasquez belongs to the left-wing Frente Amplio party (the same party of former President Jose Mujica), he is a far more centrist leader and has interesting personal ties to Israel, as he had the opportunity to do post-doctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot several years ago.
With regard to Uruguay’s votes at the General Assembly, like Argentina, Uruguay votes for two of the resolutions and abstains on one. There were unfortunately no changes this year.
Guatemala has given us a pleasant surprise this year. After a recent visit that President Jimmy Morales paid to Israel, during which the Israeli government pledged to support Guatemala on a number of areas, the Guatemalan U.N. representative cast a “no” vote on the three key anti-Israel resolutions, something that has no precedents in Latin America. This is a very important development and a strong sign of friendship between the two countries.
The bilateral relations between Israel and Honduras have improved considerably in the last few years. And this change has been reflected in the way Honduras votes at the U.N. This year, even though Honduras has kept its abstentions on two of the three important anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly, it cast a “no” vote on one of them, which is quite important.
Colombia continues to have excellent relations with Israel, even though President Santos does not have the same kind of personal ties that Former President Uribe had both with the Jewish community and Israel. Colombia has abstained on the three key anti-Israel resolutions at the UN for a number of years now and there were no changes this year.
Panama was, until now, the only Latin American country that voted “no” on one of the three key anti-Israel resolutions (the Special Committee to Investigate Human Rights Practices). This was a decision made by Former President Martinelli, who had excellent ties with Israel and the Jewish community. This year, Panama’s U.N. representative cast a “yes” vote when this resolution was put to a vote at the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee. A pretty dramatic change as it is unusual for countries to move from “no” to “yes.” The local Jewish community reached out to President Carlos Varela and this is probably why, when the resolution was taken up by the plenary, Panama abstained. Still, this move from “no” to “abstain” represents an important setback in the bilateral relations between Panama and Israel.
The current political environment is certainly favorable for the relations between Israel and Latin America to grow. And there is a lot that Israel can contribute to the countries of the region in the fields of agriculture, technology, security, science, education, etc. But Israel must ensure that the improvement of its ties with several Latin American states has a certain impact in the way these countries vote at the U.N., especially when it comes to resolutions that makes it possible for a powerful and strongly biased anti-Israel propaganda apparatus to operate under the U.N. roof.
The U.N. and its system of “specialized agencies” is famous for barring down indiscriminately on the world’s only Jewish state—Israel—and serving as a kangaroo court to heap abuse on the only country in the Middle East that boasts democratic elections, peaceful transfer of power and an independent judiciary that ensures equality for all citizens. According to figures compiled by Fiamma Nirenstein, a journalist and former Italian parliamentarian, the U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted 135 resolutions from 2006 to 2015, of which 68 have been against Israel; the General Assembly has approved 97 from 2012 to 2015, of which 83 have been against Israel; and UNESCO adopts ten country-specific resolutions every year, and all of them against Israel.
This travesty continues despite the U.N.’s abysmal failure, since its establishment in 1945, to achieve its chief goal to “maintain international peace and security.” The number of deaths attributed to the 100-year old Israeli-Arab conflict are estimated at some 120,000—compared to the grotesque number of deaths attributed to other wars, massacres, slaughters and oppressions are upward of 200 million in the 20th Century. Still, the U.N. system continues to undermine its credibility by finding new and imaginative ways to attack Israel, serving as one of the chief enablers of anti-Semitism—a term which today includes, by most versions, anti-Israel bias.
The most recent series of tainted resolutions have come from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is headquartered in Paris. In October, the Executive Board voted three times on resolutions that have denied the Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site—the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The resolutions, promoted by the Palestinians (which became a full member state at UNESCO in 2011), the Arab bloc and others, were allowed to pass—with diminishing majorities—by the feckless abstentions cast by many member states. This included Christian-majority countries that ostensibly have a vested interest in maintaining the Judeo-Christian historical narrative of the late Second Temple period in the cradle of Christianity.
These resolutions were so outrageous that they even elicited a rare written condemnation by UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria and expressions of remorse by the presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Italy at their country’s vote. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi went as far as to tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a subsequent telephone conversation that: “To say that the Jewish people have no connection to Jerusalem is like saying that the sun creates darkness.” Renzi promised to vote against such resolutions in the future, and to act to convince other European governments to adopt his position.
All of these efforts by world bodies whittle away at the legitimacy of Israel's presence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region, but they have little impact on the ground. These resolutions in fact are so outrageous that they have provided Israel with a perfect cover for keeping out recurrent committees of investigations that the U.N. has tried to send here—usually populated by "experts" whose anti-Israel bona fides are quite evident— in an effort to ignite an already flammable situation.
The UNESCO resolutions could in fact be credited for the record number of Jewish visitors to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount during the Sukkot holiday. On Oct. 23, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) called on all Israeli Jews to converge on the Western Wall for the Priestly Blessing. On a Facebook post he said: "This year, we’ll come, in our masses, to Jerusalem, to the Western Wall, to the Priestly Blessing. This Wednesday…we’ll all be there. We’ll send a clear message—nobody will separate us from our holy places.”
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, responded to the UNESCO decision by saying that, "In all of world history I don't know of an 'occupying power' whose land is full of the relics of its ancestors. The holiness of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall for the Jewish people goes back many generations. It does not need anyone's approval. It is ridiculous to deny the (archaeological) discoveries that are occurring all the time. The millions of worshipers who come to pray at the Western Wall in front of the Temple Mount are the Jewish answer to UNESCO."
And as if in perfect timing, two major archaeological discoveries that reinforce the Jewish narrative and connection to Jerusalem came to light just as the international community sought to deny it. On Oct. 27, compelling evidence of the breaching of Jerusalem’s so-called “third wall”—which was said to have surrounded the city during the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.—was announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The new archaeological find included scores of ancient ballista and sling stones that the Romans fired from catapults at the Jewish guards stationed on top of the tower to defend the wall.
The excavation directors described the find: “This is a fascinating testimony of the intensive bombardment by the Roman army, led by Titus, on their way to conquering the city and destroying the Second Temple.” And a day earlier the IAA displayed an unprecedented document containing a reference to Jerusalem from the First Temple period.
Written in ancient Hebrew script and dating back to the Kingdom of Judah during the 7th century B.C.E., the rare relic—a shipping document made of papyrus—was seized from now-jailed Palestinian antiquities plunderers in a complex IAA unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery operation. The papyrus was pillaged from a remote Judean desert cave and represents the earliest extra-Biblical source yet found to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing.
While UNESCO's words might not yet have caused any physical harm, they do undoubtedly provide the grist for ongoing Palestinian efforts to engage in widespread damage to the physical elements of Jewish patrimony in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Those archaeological finds provide incontrovertible evidence of Jewish primacy in the Holy City from the time of King David and beyond.
As an avid hiker in the less traversed mountains and valleys of Judea and Samaria, I am confronted with this sad reality on a regular basis in all areas under Palestinian control: plundered Jewish burial caves, mikvas and wine presses. Nowhere is this destruction more prevalent than on Temple Mount controlled to this day by the Muslim Waqif (Holy Trust). In an article released on Oct. 27 at an IAA conference in Jerusalem spotlighting major archeological finds over the past decade, Yuval Baruch, IAA Jerusalem Region director, describes the vast destruction caused by the Waqif in 1999. Heavy machinery was used on the Temple Mount to dig out an entrance to "Solomon's Stables," which turned it into the largest mosque in Israel. In 2007, the Waqif dug a channel for laying electrical cables on the mount.
The debris from the first incident—dumped unceremoniously in the Kidron Valley—is still yielding artifacts that corroborate the biblical story. One of the most significant discoveries was presented by experts just last month—geometrically patterned marble floor tiles believed to have covered the porticos atop the Temple Mount during the Second Temple period. The tiles are so vivid, intricate and novel in design that you can still read the Talmudic teaching that “whoever has not seen Herod's building has not seen a beautiful building in his life.”
The second incident was approved and overseen by Baruch and yielded some of the only First Temple artifacts to be found in situ on Temple Mount. But other senior archaeologists fault IAA for what they argue is a continuing pattern of non-intervention in the Waqif's design to damage and destroy vestiges of Jewish presence on and around Temple Mount. They fault the state for allowing the Temple Mount artifacts to remain buried due to considerations of expediency (i.e. that such digs would cause turmoil in the Muslim world).
While confronting—with considerable success—the diplomatic war against the Jewish people's chronicle in Jerusalem, the State of Israel must do more to ensure that our physical patrimony is not eliminated under the same motivation. If Israel is unable at this time to engage in a comprehensive expert and vetted archaeological dig on Temple Mount—something which is long over do—due to political, diplomatic and other temporal considerations, it must ensure that these artifacts remain in situ until future generations will have the fortune to do so.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova is not guilty of the hypocrisy, indifference and lack of responsibility of the member states of the organization who are promoting resolutions to incite hatred and create very negative frameworks in a place which should be devoted to expand and preserve culture. UNESCO should never support rage or erase history.
But, the facts overcome the eventual good intentions of the UNESCO general-director.
It is not necessary to be an expert in order to know that Islam was born in the 7th century C.E. The Western Wall is a great wall which was a piece of the great building of the Second Temple, which was built several centuries after the First Temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians. The Western Wall is the remnant of the Second Temple which was destroyed by the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago; 600 years before Islam was born.
This is history. No more, no less. To twist history, lies are needed.
There are people who deny history and take their lies to UNESCO. Accomplices support these lies by action, silence or ignorance, or all together: a disproportionate package of hate and hypocrisy. And those who turn indifferent are not better than the others: they join perpetrators and they fall into oblivion and disgrace.
Bokova has tried not to be indifferent and has said that: “Jerusalem is the sacred city of the three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is in recognition of this exceptional diversity, and this cultural and religious coexistence, that it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”
Bokova stressed that denying, hiding or trying to “erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions, undermines the integrity of the site, and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”
Demolishing history is not a question of undermining but aggression. It is very nice to say that from the top offices of UNESCO there will be hard work for justice and repair, but it looks naïve. One week after Bokova’s statement, UNESCO again, for the third time in less than ten days, destroyed history and showed its ugly anti-Semitic face, voting on an absurd resolution that erases Jewish ties to holy sites in Jerusalem, the center of Jews’ national and religious life throughout history.
If UNESCO and its officers really want to recover a little self-respect for the organization, the only thing to be erased, must be the resolutions incited by the Palestinian Authority and supported by rogue governments.
Is it possible? It seems unlikely.
UNESCO, as other U.N. agencies are full of anti-Semitism. It happened when the U.N. elected a former Nazi as secretary-general in 1972. During his tenure as secretary-general, former President of Austria Kurt Waldheim was awarded by UNESCO, and after his term ended, he was discovered to have been a Nazi during World War II.
So, the illness of anti-Semitism inside the U.N. and other agencies is not new.
Those who promote hatred, maybe, are very happy today. They should know that hatred causes a lot of damage and pain, but remains in the dark side of history as it is: hatred.
At the end of the day, civilization and freedom always prevail.
The Times of Israel ran an op-ed written by B'nai B'rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin on Europe's tilt toward the Palestinian's and how many EU countries help the Palestinians game the the United Nations against Israel in the conflict.
You can read the full op-ed below or click to read it on TimesOfIsrael.com
Through this summer’s din and uncertainty of Brexit, the migration crisis and a wave of terror, Europe has remained constant in one respect: its singular fixation on a wrong-headed policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
If the Middle East were an arrivals and departures board at a train station, the Israeli-Palestinian question would be down somewhere at the fifth or sixth spot, behind the war on ISIS, the Syrian civil war, the Libya fiasco and Iranian hegemonism. All those decades in which the mantra “if you solve the Palestinian issue, all outstanding issues will fall into place,” has been proven to be nothing more than hollow conventional wisdom. The Sunni-Shia divide has become a roiling ocean, creating aftershocks in nearly every corner of the region — and beyond.
For years, the Palestinian leadership has become accustomed to “pride of place” on the issue, picking up supporters and apologists globally, but no more so than in Europe itself. Explanations for this are varied: some countries were concerned at one point about the spread of PLO terrorism in Europe, and sought accommodation with the terrorist organization. Some European governments were driven by ideological considerations and looked the other way at the thuggery, then the obstructionism of the PLO and its successors, while coming down hard on a succession of center-left and center-right Israeli governments. Some European leaders saw themselves as mediators and interlocutors, worrying that a shortage of obeisance to the Palestinian narrative would disqualify them from being “honest brokers.”
Indeed, since its 1980 Venice Declaration, in which the then-EEC (European Economic Community) supported the Palestinian’s call for “self-determination,” Europe has always tilted to the Palestinian side, despite the existence of generally good bilateral relations between a number of European Union (EU) countries and Israel.
As the EU grew in size, some differences in this approach became discernible. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, a number of the new democracies could be found voting against, or abstaining on issues considered to be biased against Israel at the United Nations (U.N.) and other international fora. Increasingly, though, the demand for consensus in EU voting has seen the voting independence of the former Central and Eastern European states dissipate in the face of pressure from Brussels and from a number of the senior EU member capitals.
The 2012 decision to upgrade the status of the Palestinians to “non-member state”—despite the EU’s call for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with the object of reaching a two state solution—was supported by no less than 14 EU members. Only the Czech Republic voted against; 12 others abstained. The message to the Palestinian Authority couldn’t have been clearer: why negotiate with Israel when the international community, including key European countries, could do the heavy lifting for it?
Gaming the U.N. system has become a PA specialty.
One recent case in point is a resolution singling out Israel recently adopted at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Health Assembly in Geneva. The measure, introduced by Kuwait on behalf of the Arab Group and Palestine, singled out Israel for “physical and procedural barriers to health access” in the territories, east Jerusalem and what they call the “Syrian Golan.” The text also cited the “prolonged occupation and human rights violations on mental, physical and environmental health…”
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians knows that emergency rooms and hospital wards in Israel treat Palestinians on a daily basis. Indeed, the Israeli organization, Save a Child’s Heart, which performs, gratis, pediatric cardiac surgery, has treated more than 2,000 Palestinian children since its inception in 1996. Beyond that, Israel has been treating hundreds of cases of civilians from across Syria who have been wounded in the barrel bombings and other carnage of that bloody war in medical facilities in the northern part of Israel.
And yet, 107 countries supported this libelous WHO resolution, including all 28 EU member states. On a continent where the blood libel against Jewish communities was a prominent fixture of life in the Middle Ages, and on the basis of facts widely known in European capitals, it is both incomprehensible, and reprehensible that Israel should be castigated in this way.
Another recent example of Palestinian influence at the U.N. is the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Executive Board’s vote in favor of a resolution on “Occupied Palestine.” There are 40 points in the resolution, some of it rehashing previous resolutions condemning Israel for all manner of absurd accusations of “desecrating” holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. But this measure makes no reference at all to the Temple Mount, only to its Islamic/Arabic name, Al-Haram Al-Sharif. In the resolution, the plaza in front of the Western Wall is referred to as the Al-Buraq Plaza; “Western Wall Plaza” is noted in quotes only.
This isn’t only a matter of semantics, or “sensitivity.” In the past, the United Nations documents have referenced the holy site by both the name recognized by Judaism and Christianity (the Temple Mount) and Islam (Al-Haram Al-Sharif). This current re-writing of history, and the elimination of both the Jewish and Christian places in that history, was supported by 33 countries overall. Four EU countries actually supported the measure, and five did oppose, with two abstentions. But why was there a division in Europe over this blatant historical revisionism?
To the Palestinians, all of this has a purpose: to erase or delegitimize Israel’s, and the Jewish people’s claim to the land. That European countries, no strangers to either the Jewish narrative on their own continent or to the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, would, for the sake of diplomatic expediency, dismiss that history with a simple keystroke or a voting show of hands, is unacceptable.
There’s even more counterproductive meddling beyond the U.N. system. Case in point: Last fall’s EU directive to label products from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights prejudges an issue (settlements) that belongs in a direct negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians. The EU itself, as a member of the Quartet (which also includes the United States, the United Nations and Russia), wants to have it both ways. Calling for face-to-face negotiations but siding with the Palestinians before those talks have even begun on this issue.
This all amounts to flawed diplomacy. Those European countries which engage in this kind of voting behavior or in extra-curricular diplomacy could better spend their time encouraging the Palestinians to end their quixotic sullying of Israel, rather than enabling it. These resolutions set back what remains of the peace process, they don’t advance it. Palestinian expectations are inflated when Europe backs these initiatives, and in Israel, the belief that it can never get a fair break at the U.N. and other international fora is reinforced.
It’s time for Brussels and other European capitals to send a simple message to Ramallah: if you’re serious about peace, get to the table. If not, there is no shortage of crises to occupy our time and attention.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been in the news over the past few months for outrageous attempts by the Palestinians to seek to use the institution to erase Jewish history. These attempts are toxic to any hope of finding a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and put the reputation of UNESCO in grave danger. It is also not a new phenomenon.
In recent years, the Palestinian leadership has pushed a consistent strategy of avoidance of direct negotiations with Israel in favor of internationalizing the conflict. They do this by going to international institutions to attack Israel in the wildly misguided hope of having the international community impose Palestinian negotiating positions on Israel.
One of the first targets the Palestinians set was UNESCO, where, thanks to an automatic majority at U.N. bodies, they were accepted as a member “state,” even though no such state exists. The Palestinians showed their gratitude to UNESCO for this newly-acquired illegitimate “state” status by politicizing the organization as a tool to both erase the Jewish connection to our people’s history in our ancient homeland, and to advance the Palestinian narrative. This was not necessarily a new strategy (for instance, in 2010 the UNESCO Executive Board passed a resolution declaring the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb as Palestinian holy sites), however it was ramped up.
The Palestinians quickly moved to place the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage site in the “State of Palestine,” and moved to place it on a list of heritage sites in danger, even though there is no threat to the church, unlike sites of ancient civilizations in other parts of the Middle East that have seen wholesale destruction. Following the Church of the Nativity, the Palestinians also convinced UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to place Battir, a town south of Jerusalem that sits on the 1949 armistice line, on the list of heritage sites in danger.
By far the most dangerous of the games played at UNESCO by the Palestinians is the attempt to strip Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, from Judaism and the Jewish people. The Temple Mount, the section of Jerusalem’s Old City where the ancient Temple was housed before its destruction, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans, is the holiest site in Judaism.
What is undeniable, unless, that is, you are a UNESCO delegate from certain countries, is the connection between Judaism and this site. It is the center of our collective heart. The site is also important for Christians (who also know the site by the name the Temple Mount) and Muslims (who refer to it as Al-Haram Al-Sharif). UNESCO resolutions have taken to calling the site only by its Arabic name and described it as a Muslim site, ignoring millennia of Jewish history.
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As if this was not appalling enough, the Palestinians even had the gall to try to claim the Western Wall (the Kotel in Hebrew) as well. Last October, the Arab Group presented (on behalf of the Palestinians) a resolution to the Executive Board that said the Western Wall Plaza (referring to it as “Al-Buraq Plaza,” an uncommonly used name) was an “integral part” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which sits atop the Temple Mount). An international uproar ensued, and the offensive language was removed from the final (and still deeply-flawed) resolution.
But the attempt at historical revisionism has not ceased. The following Executive Board session, in April 2016, passed a resolution that referred to the Kotel plaza in the following disrespectful way: Al-Buraq Plaza/“Western Wall Plaza.” The UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in July 2016 copied this language on the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, as if the Palestinians can simply get UNESCO to disregard historical fact by repetition.
Why are the Palestinians and their fellow-travelers trying to re-classify the Western Wall (and when that fails, rename it)? It comes back to the Temple Mount. The Western Wall is the sole remaining still-standing structure of the Temple compound. It is the retaining wall on the western edge of the compound. It is an inconvenient reminder for the Palestinians, who have their own aspirations for a capital in Jerusalem, that the heart of the city is deeply and fundamentally tied to Jewish history and the Jewish people.
All of the UNESCO moves by the Palestinians are part of a broader strategy to rebrand history so that it fits within the Palestinian narrative while at the same time trying to erase the Jewish ties to Jerusalem. It won’t work. Jerusalem is holy to three religions, of course, but the link between Judaism and Jerusalem is unique in history. By seeking to use UNESCO resolutions to loosen the ties between Judaism and Jerusalem, the Palestinians will only succeed in sullying UNESCO’s reputation.
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