Tag Archives: UNESCO

UNESCO Censures Israel’s Administration of Jerusalem

4 Nov

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a modified version of an opinion piece that was published in Middle East Eye, November 3, 2016.]




 UNESCO, Palestine, and Israel


In response to UNESCO resolutions adopted in October that were highly critical of Israel’s protection of sacred and cultural Islamic heritage sites in Jerusalem, there is again a fiery confrontation between Israel and this UN organ whose actions have so often touched the raw nerves of Western political sensibilities. The main UNESCO resolution ‘deeply deplores’ Israel’s failure to stop a series of excavations and related activities in East Jerusalem, which are declared to be harming Islamic sites in Jerusalem, and above all complains about Israel’s interference with worship and serenity at the Al Aqsa mosque. The resolutions also complain about Israel’s general failure to cooperate with UNESCO’s cultural and religious conservation work in Jerusalem, especially in the ‘Old City,’ even to the point of refusing visas to UN officials seeking to carry out their duties.


Of course, not far in the background is Israel’s hostility toward UNESCO that has been pronounced ever since 2011 when Palestine was admitted to UNESCO as a member state over the vigorous objections of Israel, the United States, as well as several European countries. Unlike the Security Council, where the US could singlehandedly block full UN membership, there is no veto in either the General Assembly or in UN specialized agencies. Israel has refused all cooperation with UNESCO ever since Palestine gained membership, which presupposes that Palestine qualifies for membership because it has the credential of a state. Obligingly, the U.S. reinforced Israel’s hostility by withholding its annual contributions ever since, which amounts to a hefty 22% of the UNESCO budget.


This New Controversy


This latest initiative raised substantive issues high on the UNESCO agenda. This contrasts with the earlier status fight about admission to the agency, which was limited in scope to a procedural matter, that is, whether or not Palestine qualifies as a state entitled to membership. Here, Israel insists that UNESCO is aligning itself with a sinister Arab effort to minimize, or even erase, Jewish historic and religious connections with Jerusalem, and specifically with the area around Al Aqsa Mosque and the nearby Noble Sanctuary. The resolution fails to mention explicitly Jewish connections with the Temple Mount and Western Wall, using only Arab names for these places of overlapping religious significance, although in its general language it was acknowledged in the UNESCO text that all three monotheistic religions possessed historical connections with the Old City in Jerusalem that should be respected. It is accurate for Israel to assert that the Temple Mount and Western Wall are the very most sacred of all Jewish holy places, a reality that should have been acknowledged. It was somewhat invidious, and not really relevant, for the Israeli denunciation of the UNESCO action, to point out that Al Aqsa ranked only third in the Islamic canon, behind Mecca and Medina, and thus seemingly had a lesser claim on UNESCO’s protection if competing claims were at issue. Actually, this line of attack is a red herring as there was no UNESCO attempt to denigrate Jewish claims; the resolutions were devoted to pointing out Israel’s failures of responsibility with Islamic sites.


Nevertheless, in a typically diversionary spirits, Israel’s top politicians insisted that to approach UNESCO’s role in Jerusalem in such an allegedly partisan manner effect was deeply offensive to Jewish concerns. Netanyahu, never at a loss for invective, put his objection this way: “Saying that Israel doesn’t have a connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying the Chinese don’t have a connection to the Great Wall.” He went on, “Through this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost the little bit of legitimacy that it has.” Let’s be clear. The UNESCO resolutions in no way denied Jewish connections with the holy sites of Jersualem, it just failed to acknowledge them by name. There was no ‘absurd decision’ as the resolutions were above all a fully legitimate, even overdue, call to Israel to start performing its proper role of protecting Islamic sites as Occupying Power in accord with law, and in the interest of cultural preservation. There were strong grounds to believe that Israel was administering Jerusalem in ways that were threatening in various ways to the integrity and enjoyment of Islamic sites. From this perspective it was in no way relevant to mention, much less criticize, Israel’s protection of Jewish sites as they were being fully protected by Israel, likely over-protected and allowed to encroach in unacceptable ways on Islamic sites.


Jordan, among the several Arab sponsors, praised UNESCO’s “historic decision” as supportive of the very genuine struggle to preserve the status quo in Jerusalem in the face of Israeli efforts to create as much of a Jewish city as possible, diminishing by stages the Palestinian and Islamic character of the place. In recent years there was particular reasons for concern about Israel’s effort to administer the holy sites in Jerusalem, especially Al Aqsa. Such an evenhanded role conflicted with Israel’s preoccupation with promoting the primacy of Jewish traditions and memories, and deliberately at the expense of Muslim and even Christian concerns.


There has been a series of violent encounters at Al Aqsa during several recent religious holidays. This much beloved mosque was increasingly endangered as a serene place of worship by Israeli policies and practices in recent years. Israel has in the past been severely criticized for the failure to fulfill its legal responsibilities with respect to holy sites in Jerusalem as ‘Occupying Power.’ With respect to Al Aqsa Israel was specifically charged with denying access to Muslim worshippers and not taking adequate steps to curb the campaign of settler extremists to assert aggressively Jewish claims in the mosque area leading to violent encounters.


Appraising the UNESCO Initiative


Overall, it would seem that there are two kinds of understandable reactions to this latest UNESCO initiative. It was entirely appropriate and even necessary for UNESCO members and the organization to complain about Israel’s failures to uphold its several responsibilities with respect to holy and heritage sites throughout Jerusalem. It is one more illustration of Israel’s pattern of defiance when it comes to discharging its obligations as set forth in the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties. In these circumstances, it was appropriate for UNESCO to act, and given developments in Jerusalem in recent years, even with a sense of urgency.


At the same time, it was inappropriate and seems irresponsible for the resolution to avoid an explicit acknowledgement of the Jewish connections to Temple Mount and Western Wall. The UNESCO drafters should have anticipated that by referencing only the Arabic names the resolutions would be sufficiently provocative to give Israel a rather plausible pretext for voicing a hostile reaction, and thereby evading the substantive criticism that was the core of the initiative. These wider politics also led a politically acute Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, to join Israel, the United States, and some European states in condemning the resolutions, calling them an irresponsible incitement of violence, swallowing Israel’s bait to place all blame on the provocation and give no attention at all to the genuine substantive issues that lie at the heart of UNESCO’s mission.


This unwillingness to mention both the Jewish and Arab names for the holy sites in Jerusalem had the dysfunctional effect of shifting attention away from the legitimate concerns of Palestinians and others in the Islamic world about the overall failure of Israel to uphold its responsibilities in Jerusalem, which included a variety of efforts to Judaize the city by stages. These unacceptable occupation policies verge on ethnic cleansing with a focus on undermining the Palestinian presence in relation to religious and cultural claims, residence rights, building permits, and family reunification. Thus, Israeli failures to carry out the legal responsibilities associated with being an Occupying Power with respect to non-Jewish holy and cultural heritage sites should be understood as an inflammatory implementation of Israel’s unlawful annexation of Jerusalem.


It is possible that this question of acknowledgement might not have avoided Israel’s condemnation of UNESCO’s initiative. It seems likely that Israel was enraged by this successful move by Palestine to sidestep Israel’s attempt to oppose any Palestinian effort to gain legitimacy and attention for its statehood claims. In this regard Israel’s most basic objection to the resolution likely involved the adoption of its title “Occupied Palestine,’ giving Palestine the status it is aspiring to establish on its own without any prior agreement by Israel. This by itself infuriates the Netanyahu leadership in Israel, which is evidently seeking to exclude any possibility of Palestinian statehood, and seeks to avoid the legal complications of occupying a foreign state as it proceeds with its own territorial expansion. Finally, it should be appreciated that Palestine has only resorted to this symbolic chessboard of UN legitimation after twenty years of frustration and setbacks resulting from Oslo diplomacy.

UNESCO Membership and Palestinian Self-Determination

3 Nov

 It may not ease the daily pain of occupation and blockade or the endless anguish of refugee status and exile or the continual humiliations of discrimination and second class citizenship, but the admission of Palestine to membership in UNESCO is for so many reasons a step forward in the long march of the Palestinian people toward the dignity of sunlight! This notable event in Paris illuminates one path that leads to self-determination, but also brings into the open some of the most formidable obstacles that must be cleared away if further progress is to be made.


The simple arithmetic of the UNESCO vote, 107 in favor, 14 opposed, 52 abstentions, and 21 absent fails to tell the story of how one sidedness of the vote. Toting up the for and against votes obscures the wicked arm twisting, otherwise known as geopolitics, that induced such marginal political entities as Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, and Vanuatu to stand against the weight of global opinion and international morality by making a meaningless gesture of opposition to the Palestinian application for admission as member to UNESCO. This is not meant as an insult to such small states, but is intended to lament their vulnerability to powerful American pressures hoping to distort the perception of world public opinion by making the admission issue seem more contested than it is.


Such a distortion makes a minor mockery of the prevailing pretension that governments are able to offer adequate representation to the peoples of the world. It also illustrates the degree to which formal political independence may obscure a condition of de facto dependence as well as makes plain that voting patterns within the United Nations System should never be confused with aspirations to establish at some future time a functioning global democracy in substance as well as procedure. As an aside, geopolitical maneuvers consistently compromise the electoral process within the UN System, especially in the Security Council, and to a lesser extent, in the General Assembly and other UN institutional arenas. This actuality of the UN as a political actor demonstrates the urgency and desirability of establishing a global peoples parliament that would at least provide a second voice whenever a UN policy debate touches on issues of human concern.


What may be the most impressive aspect of the UNESCO vote is that despite a vigorous U.S. diplomacy of threat and intimidation, the Palestinian application for membership easily carried the day. There was enough adherence to principle by enough states to provide the necessary 2/3rds vote even in the face of this craven American diplomatic effort to please Israel, an effort reinforced by punitive action in the form of refusing further financial support for UNESCO, which amounts to some $60 million for the current year, and in the future, 22% of the organization’s annual budget of $643 million in 2010-11 (which is projected as $653 million for 2011-12). Actually this withholding of funds is an American policy embedded in ambiguous legislation that derives from the early 1990s, and so for once a preposterously the pro-Israeli action cannot be blamed on the present Congress, although it seems obvious that Congress would have taken the same steps or worse if given the chance. The leaders of both parties have made no secret of their desire to make the most of this new opportunity to draw fresh UN blood. Indeed rabid pro-Israel members of Congress are already showboating their readiness to do far more  than the law requires so as to manifest the extreme character of their devotion to Israel.  This unseemly punishment of UNESCO (and indirectly, the peoples of the world) for taking a principled stand expresses a more sinister attitude than merely the pique of being a poor loser. The American defunding move, taken without even a few words of regret, amounts to a totally irresponsible willingness to damage the indispensable work of cultural and societal cooperation on international levels just to make the childish point that there will be a price tag attached whenever the wishes of Israel suffer a setback at the UN, with the United States ready always to serve as the dutiful enforcement agent.


This sorry train of events gives governments of other states an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to human wellbeing and greater independence in global policy arenas by quickly acting to restore confidence in the UN. One way to do this is to overcome this unanticipated UNESCO budget deficit with a series of voluntary contributions to the UNESCO budget. What would deliver an instructive message to Washington and Tel Aviv would be a special funding campaign on behalf of UNESCO that generated more money than is being withheld. It seems an appropriate time to demonstrate once and for all that such strong arm fiscal tactics are no longer acceptable and often backfire in the post-colonial world. Such an outcome would also confirm that the geopolitical tectonic plates of world order have shifted in such a way as to give increasing prominence to such countries as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa all of whom voted to admit Palestine to UNESCO. At least for the moment in this limited setting we might get a glimpse of a genuine ‘new world order’! The Security Council has proved unable and unwilling so far to change its two-tier structure to accommodate these shifts in the geopolitical landscape, but these countries still kept on the sidelines of UN activities can reinvent world politics by becoming more active and autonomous players on the global stage. It is not necessary to wait any longer for France and Britain to read the tea leaves of their decline accurately enough to acknowledge that their role on the global stage has permanently diminished, and if these governments want an effective UN it is past time for them to step aside and let the rising non-West states run the show for a while, starting with giving up their claim to permanent seats at the UNSC. Admittedly, I am indulging some wishful thinking. I have no illusion that these ex-colonial powers will act responsibly. International history instructs us that most states would rather see world order collapse than to defuse a governance crisis by giving up entrenched, yet outmoded, privileges.


Perhaps, more enduring than the UNESCO vote itself is the reinforced image of the wildly inappropriate role given to the United States to act as intermediary and peacemaker in seeking to resolve the underlying conflict and ensure the realization of Palestinian rights that have been so cruelly denied for more than six decades. Observers as diverse as Michel Rocard, the former Socialist Party Prime Minister of France, and Mouin Rabbani, a widely respected Palestinian analyst of the conflict, each reach a common conclusion that this discordant American campaign to thwart an elemental Palestinian quest for legal recognition and political participation, establishes beyond all reasonable doubt, although such a reality should long have been apparent to even the most casual serious observer of the conflict, that the time has come to remove the United States from its presiding role with respect to the resolution of this conflict. It has always verged on the absurd to expect justice, or even fairness, to flow from a diplomatic framework in which the avowed and extremely partisan ally of the dominant party puts itself forward as ‘the honest broker’ in negotiations in a setting where the weaker side is subject to military rule, exile, and the continuous violation of its basic rights. To have given credibility to this tripartite charade for so many years is itself a commentary on the weakness of the Palestinian position, and the importance at this stage that Palestinian representative insist henceforth on a balanced international framework as a precondition for any future negotiations. Without such balance there is not the slightest prospect of producing a sustainable and just peace through diplomacy. Regrettably the PLO and the Palestinian Authority have yet to repudiate the Oslo era of phony peace negotiations, and astonishingly seem even now to be ready to resume talks if only Israel announces a temporary and partial freeze on settlement expansion. It is disappointing that the Palestinian Authority/PLO still is willing to endow this negotiating process with potential credibilit.

 Yet to find a new framework does not mean following the incredibly Orientalist prescription proposed by Rocard: “The Americans have lost their moral right to leadership in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is time for Europe to step into the fray.”  As if Europe had recently demonstrated its capacity for rendering justice because it carried out the NATO intervention in Libya! As if the colonial heritage had been suddenly rebranded as a positive credential! As if the Americans ever had a ‘moral right’ to resolve this conflict that was only now lost in the UNESCO voting chamber! It is not clear how a new diplomacy for the conflict that is finally responsive to the situation of the parties, the region, and the world should be structured, but it must reflect at the very least the new realities of an emergent multipolarity skewed toward the non-West. To be provocative for once, maybe Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and India should now constitute themselves as a more legitimate quartet than that horribly discredited quartet composed of the United States, the EU, Russia, and the UN, and assisted by its Special Envoy, the talented Mr. Blair.


Returning to the UNESCO controversy, it is worth noting the words of denunciation used by Victoria Nuland, the designated State Department spokesperson. She described the vote as “regrettable, premature” contending that it “undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Even Orwell might be dazed by such an archly diversionary formulation. Why we may ask was the vote regrettable and premature, and not the reverse: welcome and overdue? After all to work for the preservation of religious and other world heritage sites within the halls of UNESCO or to promote safe sanitation and clean drinking water for the poorest countries is hardly subversive of global stability by any sane reckoning. After enduring occupation for more than 44 years, it qualifies as comedic to insist that Palestine must not yet come in from the cold because such an entry would be ‘premature.’ And how can it be claimed that Palestine participation within the UN System ‘undermines’ the ‘shared goal’ of regional peace in the Middle East? The only answer that makes any sense of the American position is say that whatever Israel says is so is so, and the United States will act accordingly, that is, do whatever Israel wants it to do in the global arena. Such kneejerk geopolitics is not only contrary to elementary considerations of law and justice, it is also monumentally irrational and self-defeating from the perspective of the national wellbeing of the United States and future peace in the region and beyond. It also sets a horrible precedent by the absence of any ‘decent respect for the opinions of mankind.’


What in the end may be most troubling about this incident is the degree that it confirms a growing impression that both the United States and Israel have lost the capacity to serve their own security interests and rationally promote the wellbeing of their own people. This is serious enough with respect to the damage done to their societies by such maladroit behavior, but recognizing that these two military heavyweights who both possess arsenals of nuclear weaponry are well on their way to becoming rogue states is frightening to contemplate. These are two of the few governments in the current world that continue to rest their future security almost exclusively on an outmoded reliance on hard power investments in military capabilities and accompanying aggressive ideas about the effectiveness of military solutions. The implications of this approach are potentially catastrophic for the region and the world. When Israel alienates Turkey, its only surviving friend in the Middle East, and then refuses to take the minimal steps to heal the wounds caused by its recklessly violent behavior, one has to conclude that the Israeli sense of reality has fallen on hard times! And when Israel pushes the United States to lose this much social capital on the global stage by standing up for its defiance of international law as in relation to rejecting the recommendations of the Goldstone Report or refusing to censure the expansion of its unlawful settlements or the collective punishment of Gaza, there is no longer much doubt that Israeli foreign policy is driven by domestic extremism that then successfully solicits Washington for ill-advised implementation. And now, this furious beating of war drums in relation to Iran provides tangible confirmation that these severe indictments of American and Israeli behavior need to be taken seriously before it is too late!  


The situation in the United States is parallel. Many excuse, or at least explain, America’s unconditionally irrational support for Israel as produced by the fearsome leverage exerted by AIPAC over electoral politics in the country as associated with the political activities of the Congress and rationalized by conservative think tanks. But what this explanation says is that the United States Government, like Israel, has also lost the capacity to pursue a sensible foreign policy in a crucial region of the world that reflects its own national interests, much less provide leadership based on a wider commitment to a stable and just Middle East. The Arab Spring offered the United States a second chance so to speak to overcome its long embrace of vicious autocratic rule in the region, but this opportunity is being senselessly squandered on the altar of subservience to the vindictive whims, expansionist visions, and paranoid fears of the Netanyahu/Lieberman governing coalition in Israel.


Welcoming Palestine to UNESCO is a day of celebration and vindication for the Palestinian people, and a political victory for PA/PLO leadership, but it is also a day when all of us should reflect upon the wider Palestinian tragedy and struggle, and encourage further steps forward, including membership in such other components of the international system as the World Health Organization, the International Criminal Court, UNICEF and the International Court of Justice. If the U.S. Government were to continue its defunding tactic as Palestine gained admission after admission, its influence and reputation in the region and the global stage would certainly take a nosedive. Yet the United States is likely to be rescued not by intelligently backing off, but by the degree to which the PA/PLO seems ready to settle for UNESCO, and save other initiatives for some future season, apparently unwilling or unable to cope with further defunding as complemented by Israel’s withholding from Ramallah tax revenues needed to pay the salaries of its West Bank bureaucracy. 


UNESCO has given a momentary respite to those who were completely disillusioned by what to expect from the UN or the system of states when it comes to Palestinian aspirations (remember all those unimplemented resolutions passed by overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly and then never acted upon), and instead put their hope and efforts into the initiatives of global civil society, especially the growing BDS campaign and efforts to break open the Gaza blockade by continuing to send ships carrying humanitarian goods to the Gazans. Now is certainly not the time to shift attention away from such grassroots initiatives, but it does suggest that there are many symbolic battlefields in the ongoing legitimacy war being waged for Palestinian self-determination, and several of the more promising opportunities are situated within the network of institutions comprising the United Nations. Of course, becoming a member of UNESCO is the beginning, not the end, of making use of these institutional affiliations to advance the struggle of Palestine to realize the rights of all of its people, those under occupation, those in refugee camps in neighboring countries, and those in the Palestinian diaspora. But it is likely to be also the temporary end, given PA/PLO timidity and the financial blackmail to which it is being subjected.