Palestinians Score Diplomatic Victory at UNESCO

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Last week the executive board of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, approved an Arab-sponsored resolution to refer to the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque only as Haram al-Sharif, the name used by Muslims, while removing references to the Temple Mount, as it is called by Jews. The re-designation has been applauded by the Palestinian Authority and many Arab dailies, who see it as a part of the struggle against occupation. Israeli media largely reacted with scorn and accusations of anti-Semitism, though some on the left saw it as a result of the diplomatic failures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The controversy is largely symbolic; UN officials indicated in a subsequent declaration that the resolution was non-binding. However, the unprecedented move has been widely interpreted as a significant setback for Israel and hailed as an important milestone and victory for Palestinian diplomacy.

The initial UNESCO resolution was received, according to a Ma’an News report, with some glee by the Palestinian Authority, who insist that the debate about the designation of the holy site is another iteration of the long-running dispute between the PA and the Israeli government: “The PA statement said that the decision to adopt the UNESCO resolution reflected the ‘continued commitment of the majority of member states to confront impunity and uphold the principles upon which UNESCO was founded.’ The statement continued to express the PA’s disappointment with several countries — mainly European — which had changed their votes that were initially in favor of the resolution, after what the statement referred to as Israel’s ‘PR bullying’….The statement added that Palestinian activities at the UN and on the international level would not be ‘deterred by distortions and smear campaigns,’ and would continue pressuring the international community to take responsibility and act on Israel’s violations of international law ‘which have continued with impunity for half a century’.”

Commenting before the UN decision, the Saudi Gazette editorial staff noted that the proposal was a validation of Palestinian efforts to make their voice heard in international forums: “The UNESCO resolution does not refer to the Al-Aqsa Mosque by either the Hebrew term for the site or its English translation, but only by its Muslim name. The Hebrew terms will only appear in quotation marks in UN references. This re-designation is a victory for Palestine against Israel. Jerusalem’s holy site is declared Muslim, not Jewish, in a UN resolution….The UNESCO resolution coincided with international efforts to calm violence in the region after increasingly frequent Jewish visits to the compound….The Palestinians have demanded that an international delegation of experts be sent to the holy sites to examine the destruction of historical and archaeological heritage by Israel, carried out in a variety of manners, including the building of Jerusalem’s light rail and archaeological excavations….These Palestinian demands have not yet been met, but the UNESCO resolution means their voice is being heard on the world’s biggest political stage.”

According to a recent editorial by the staff of The National, the Al-Aqsa Mosque / Temple Mount controversy is a reminder of the status of Jerusalem and its place as a point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: “Israel’s control over Jerusalem is one of the most contentious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…. Now UNESCO has drawn attention to Israel’s continued entrenchment of control in Jerusalem. While Israel might be upset, UNESCO’s new resolutions are in line with internationally recognized peace agreements that see Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. At a time when international boycotts against Israel for its occupation of Palestinian land are gaining steam, Tel Aviv’s decision to boycott UNESCO sets a precedent. Israel is demonstrating that boycotts have a use as a tool of non-violent reaction, something that should encourage BDS supporters. Angry rhetoric about Israel’s deepening occupation appears to be transforming into action.”

Others, like Jordan Times’s Musa Keliani, also tried to make the case that the UNESCO decision was historically correct, even when considering arguments made by some Haredi Jews: “A Jewish connection to Al Aqsa Mosque has not been documented by historians or Biblical experts. Many rabbis admit openly that the Wailing Wall is not part of Solomon’s temple, and so it might have some historical significance but no religious sacredness according to the Jewish religion….Haredi groups that want to accelerate the return of the Messiah and to rebuild the Third Temple claim that the two Muslim sanctuaries, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, are built on the same site as Solomon’s Temple and should be demolished. Such an action would result in an immediate religious war between Muslims and Jews, not only in Jerusalem, but all over Palestine.”

The Israeli media has understandably reacted fiercely. The Jerusalem Post editorial interpreted the setback, even though in the end it was not a binding resolution, as a warning sign of things to come: “None of the recent events cited above is new. In fact, they were predicted five years ago by then-defense minister Ehud Barak, who warned Israel would face a ‘diplomatic tsunami’ if the standstill in Middle East peace talks continued….It is almost amusing to recall Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks at the UN General Assembly just a few weeks ago when he proudly declared that ‘Israel has a bright future at the UN’. After a week like this and considering the challenges ahead, it is difficult to describe Israel’s future as bright….The attempt by UNESCO to sever Jerusalem’s holy places from the Jewish people is not the first tsunami warning we received, but is just the latest manifestation of the global epidemic of antisemitism and Israel-hatred that no longer knows bounds.”

Meanwhile, the Haaretz editorial sees the resolution as a “diplomatic defeat” for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing that he has turned Israel into a pariah: “The UNESCO executive board’s resolution on the Old City of Jerusalem was a searing diplomatic defeat for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy….It turns out the world hasn’t changed. Israel may be accepted behind the scenes, in back-channel dealings, but when the lights go on, legitimacy belongs to the Palestinians. And Israel’s old friends are the only ones that still give it backing, even though Netanyahu has rejected their efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution….Improving Israel’s international standing has a clear and well-known price tag: meaningful steps to moderate the occupation and serious negotiations to establish Palestine. Anything else is just the prime minister throwing sand in our eyes and regaling us with fairy tales.”

Arutz Sheva’s Giulio Meotti, on the other hand, takes aim at the European countries that opted to abstain rather than support Israel, suggesting that, in principle, the UNESCO resolution was not that different from the destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State: “When it came to the ruins of Palmyra destroyed by the Islamic State, UNESCO and Western culture… were outraged and mobilized. Now a similar denialist fury has struck the holy city of Jerusalem, but this time not only UNESCO has encouraged vandalism, but most Western democracies abstained from condemning [it]. … The historical denial has taken root in the Western newspapers, but you feel the lack of similar appeals against this attack at the World Heritage Center. Because if the Jews have no connection to Jerusalem, the Christian story is also a sham according to ISIS members in double-breasted suits who sit at the Paris UNESCO building in the Place de Fontenoy. Shame on all of them.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at



  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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