The UNESCO Vote on Israel and the Role of International Organizations

Published on July 11, 2017

The latest vote at the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), on the 7th of July, declaring the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron as a Palestinian heritage site, which is in danger by Israel, is part of a process of anti-Israeli votes that include Jerusalem and other places under Israeli control.

The problem with such votes is that they enhance the tendency to replace facts with fiction.

Whichever view one holds as to how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ought to be solved, the fact remains that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is one of the holiest Jewish sites; and that it is not in any danger from Israel.

Similar accusations have been levelled against Israel with regard to Jerusalem; and a similar reply can be advanced to refute them: Jerusalem is the holiest city in Jewish history and it is not in any danger from Israel.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and its holy places prior to Israel’s capture of the city during the Six Day War of 1967, and who has visited it since, can ascertain the profound differences that exist, which testify to Israel’s endeavours to keep the holy sites for Judaism, Christianity and Islam in good conditions.

The fact remains that, when Israel did not control the Old City of Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed to visit the Wailing Wall; now that Israel does, Christian and Muslims are allowed to visit their respective holy places.

To be sure, one can genuinely believe that, as part of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, Hebron and the eastern part of Jerusalem should be ceded by Israel to a future Palestinian state. However, that by itself should not afford legitimacy to distort basic historical facts.

Of course, the diplomatic campaign conducted by the Palestinian Authority is not aimed at correcting historical misconceptions, but at delegitimizing Israel by depicting it as a cruel occupying force that has no links to any of the sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and places them in danger.

In this context, it is important to draw a distinction between a subjective narrative and the truth. A subjective narrative may reflect the truth or not; but there is, at least in principle, such a notion as a factual truth that can be objectively discovered.

For instance, if one were to say that Islam has no historical connection to the cities of Mecca and Medina that would not be true. Such a statement would be factually false, no matter the narrative that led to it.

These kind of votes not only distort the truth, but tarnish the reputation of international organizations such as UNESCO. Instead of dwelling on their declared agenda, these organizations become the forum for grotesque scenes of Orwellian-like discourse, which ultimately afford scant temporary satisfaction to those tabling them without any concrete change on the ground.

What is particularly striking is that, while the Palestinian Arabs glow in ephemeral triumphs at international organizations, Israel continues to enhance its links with countries all over the world. Due to its technological and scientific prowess, as well as to the strength of its economy, Israel has become a coveted country by states that seek ever closer relations with it. The geostrategic changes in the Middle East have also transformed Israel into a tacit ally of Arab countries in the region.

Behind the veneer of transitory victories at international organizations there is a sad reality of deep divisions within the Palestinian Arab camp and no concrete gains on the ground since the Oslo Process in the 1990s.

The Palestinian Arab narrative fuels a sense of victimhood, which, though quite successful at eliciting a positive response at international fora, is self-defeating for those sincerely wishing to end the conflict.

It has been said that the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be content with the status quo. Whether that is true or not, the fact remains that, paradoxically, the diplomatic campaign conducted against Israel by the Palestinian Authority at international organizations only serves to maintain the status quo.

International organizations should be a forum to promote their stated agendas, and not the narrow narratives of one side of an international conflict.

The Author

Yoav Tenembaum

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the graduate Diplomacy Program (Political Science Department), Tel Aviv University, Israel.

One of the courses he taught is on Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution in Modern History, which places much emphasis on the development of International Law and its application in the resolution of international conflicts. He also taught on Diplomacy and International Crises, The Shaping of Foreign Policy and Decision-Making, and others.

Dr. Tenembaum has lectured widely on various aspects of the Arab-Israeli dispute, in Israel, South America and Britain. He has been invited on several occasions to lecture on the subject by the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University.

This article first appeared in American Diplomacy.