Analysis: What brought on the dramatic UNESCO upset?

For a man who just lost a significant vote, Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen was having what he described as a “dream” day.

Israel had always known that it would lose the vote at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Paris on a resolution that ignores Jewish ties to the Temple Mount. So it worked instead to ensure that the text was as benign as possible and that it passed with minimal support.

Its efforts in these regards were successful, but only after a touch-and-go drama, with last-minute twists and turns, up until Wednesday’s vote which ended the threeday meeting.

It involved an Israeli bluff to counter a Palestinian threat intended to pressure the WHC to pass the resolution by consensus.

The Palestinian Authority and Jordan had warned that they would strengthen the Muslim claims to the site in the resolution, unless there were a consensus vote on the existing text, which was a softer version than the one the WHC approved last year.

Israel allowed them to believe they had the consensus support. Part of that strategy was the release of statements to the media about how Israel expected a major loss at the WHC meeting in Paris.

Assuming a consensus support, the Palestinians and the Jordanians submitted the softer version of the resolution for a vote.

It was only until the meeting opened, and Tanzania and Croatia called for a secret ballot, that the Palestinians and the Jordanians suddenly understood that events would not go as planed.

For over half an hour the Arab countries on the committee, led by Lebanon and with the help of Cuba, attempted and ultimately failed to push forward a consensus motion.

The vote that then took place was on the less contentious text, particularly compared to the one that the committee approved in 2015.

The World Heritage Committee votes annually on Jerusalem, so that it can reaffirm its placement on the list of endangered World Heritage Sites. Wednesday’s resolution was also less problematic than the one approved earlier this month by UNESCO’s 58-member executive board.

Among the critical differences was the restoration of the Jewish terms of reference for the Western Wall, which in past resolutions had been in quotation marks or parentheses, with the text referring to the holy Jewish site only by its Muslim name, the Buraq Wall.

There were fewer references to the Temple Mount’s Muslim name of al-Haram al-Sharif, and only one statement that it is a Muslim holy site of worship.

The 2016 WHC text spoke once of the Israeli “occupation” authorities, but dropped the 10 references in the 2015 text to Israel as an “occupying power.”

Shama-Hacohen said that it had been unclear until Wednesday morning how much support Israel had. In the end, he said, only the Arab states on the committee, along with Cuba and Vietnam, supported the resolution.

“We succeeded in surprising them [the Palestinians and the Arab states] at the last minute,” Shama-Hacohen said. “Credit for this is due to the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I want to issue a special thanks to two brave nations, Croatia and Tanzania, that lay on the fence for Israel and publicly asked for a vote, [and] stood against the wishes of the Arab world,” Shama-Hacohen said. He also thanked the United States for the significant role that it played.

“With respect to the content, the Arab nations had no choice but to beat an almost complete retreat on the issue of the Western Wall,” Shama- Hacohen said.

The problem that remained was referring to the Temple Mount solely by its Muslim name, al-Haram al-Sharif, he said. “But that issue will also be solved one day, and the truth will win out.”


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