Israel faces dilemma in dealing with critical UN bodies

Whether at the UNESCO or the UNHRC, it appears the United States is leading the walkouts while Israel reluctantly follows suit.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Political sensitivities. Flags fly in front of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris. (AFP)
Political sensitivities. Flags fly in front of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris. (AFP)

LONDON - Israel is facing a dilemma on how to deal with UN bodies critical of its policies while the Palestinian leadership is trying to join more organisations that represent the international community.

The United States, quickly followed by Israel, decided last year to leave the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), citing an alleged anti-Israel bias. However, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO said he would recommend his government reconsider leaving the group.

Ambassador Carmel Shama Hacohen’s remarks came after UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee agreed at a meeting in Bahrain to delay resolutions regarding the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Hebron.

US funding of UNESCO was halted after the Palestinians became members in 2011. Before that, the United States contributed $80 million annually, 22% of UNESCO’s budget.

The Old City of Jerusalem and the ancient city of Hebron are on the World Heritage List of endangered sites, meaning their status must be reviewed annually. Last year’s decision to add Hebron as a Palestinian heritage site outraged Israelis. A UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem that criticised Israel’s occupation of the eastern part of the city was also met with anger in Tel Aviv.

The Israeli and US withdrawal process from UNESCO requires a year and both exits are scheduled to take effect December 31. It is unclear what the US position would be if Israel decides to stay.

The United States also said it would leave the United Nations’ main human rights body, again citing bias against Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu applauded the walkout by the Trump administration but stopped quitting the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) himself. Instead, Israel temporarily reduced its participation with the UNHRC.

Diplomats in Geneva told the Associated Press the situation could change at any time. Israel is not one of the council’s 47 members but has participated as an observer.

The move comes as the United Nations’ human rights office was to release a list of companies whose activities in Israeli settlements are seen to harm human rights, notably of Palestinians. The council voted two years ago, over US objections, to order the rights office to compile the list.

Israel is concerned that the so-called blacklist could drive companies away and cast a further pall over its presence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank.

Whether at the UNESCO or the UNHRC, it appears the United States is leading the walkouts while Israel reluctantly follows suit, even though the reasons cited by Washington include anti-Israel bias.

As part of their bid for international recognition for statehood, Palestinian officials reportedly submitted applications seeking full membership in three UN agencies, despite strong US objections.

“We decided to submit papers to join three UN organisations to strengthen the standing of the State of Palestine in the international community,” an unnamed Palestinian Authority official told the Jerusalem Post, without naming which organisations.

The Palestinian Authority achieved non-member observer status at the United Nations in 2012 but the move that infuriated the United States and Israel the most was that it became a member state of the International Criminal Court at The Hague in 2015.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced in 2016 that the Palestinian Authority had joined 44 international organisations and vowed to work until “we will join all (522) of them.”

12