Tuesday 25 October 2016

The UNESCO Fiasco That Could Help Israel's Cause

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) decided last week to pass a vote on the issue of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Western Wall and Al Aqsa Mosque in particular.  This was not the first time that such a vote has been passed by UNESCO, and it is unlikely to be the last.  If it was not for the fact that the vote was passed by an organisation that has such broad international representation, and a remit that has an important role in the preservation and advancement of education, science and culture around the world, it would be laughable and difficult to take seriously.

The resolution runs into five pages of condemnations, disapprovals, regrets and deprecations about how Israel (referred to repeatedly in the document as the "occupying power") has violated the "historic status quo" under which the Waqf (referred to in the document as the Awqaf) governs the holy sites.  Israel is accused of using aggression and illegal measures against the Waqf and its personnel, civilians and religious figures, and of using force against and damaging the Al Aqsa Mosque, restricting access to the Temple Mount (not the words of the resolution) via the Mughrabi Gate and preventing the reconstruction of the Al Rahma Gate building.  And, for good measure, there are some condemnations thrown in about military confrontations in and around Gaza and excavations at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.  The resolution fails to make mention of any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, the Old City and the Temple Mount that is is the holiest site in Judaism.  Instead, it is mentioned purely in Islamic terms.  None of this comes as any surprise to anybody who has been following the votes by UN organisations over the past decade.  They have objectively been very biased against Israel at every level, including the General Assembly, Security Council and other related UN bodies.  Many words of condemnation of this UNESCO resolution have been written, and the Jewish people around the world have demonstrated their disapproval in many different ways.  The thousands who turned up the Western Wall for the Priestly Blessing during the festival of Succot was a sure sign of defiance against the resolution.

In a strange sort of way, I sense that reaction to this resolution may end up helping Israel's cause in the international community, and at UN-related bodies in particular.  Despite the outrage of this vote being passed by 24 votes to 6, with a massive 26 countries abstaining, there are a few positives to be taken from the vote.  While these positive points change nothing about this vote, they do send a message that things could be different in the future.  There are indications that this is the vote that may have broken the camel's back.

Even before the result of the vote was announced,  UNESCO's director-general Irina Bokova was forced to make a statement about how she believes that denying Judaism's connection to Jerusalem (along with the two other monotheistic faiths) harms UNESCO.  The head of UNESCO's executive board, Michael Worbs, said that he hoped that the resolution would not go to a vote.  Clearly, the executive team of UNESCO was embarrassed by the vote of the members of the organisation, and was happy to show this embarrassment in public.  Even the Secretary-General of the UN, who has not necessarily been a great friend to Israel or the Jews during his term, felt the need to speak out against the resolution.  This is a first.  But the positive signs run even deeper than that.

At a previous similar vote in April 2016, the number of countries that voted in favour of the anti-Israel resolution was 33.  Over the course of about 6 months, there were 9 fewer votes in support of a resolution that was substantively the same as the previous one.  This represents progress for Israel, albeit not quite a victory.  The Mexican government decided to fire its ambassador after he refused to obey their orders to support the resolution.  Despite this debacle, the Mexican government stood up after the vote to withdraw its support for the resolution.  The ambassador remained fired, but the u-turn was highly unexpected.

Brazil, which supported the original vote and then spoke out saying that support of the vote was a mistake, chose to support the second vote as well.  They then spoke out again saying that a future similar vote would not be supported by Brazil.  Brazil's actions, and contrary statements are impossible to understand.  It is unclear why the Brazilian government considered that, if the resolution is not worthy of support in the future, it should be worthy of support now.  Brazil's ambivalence, however, is noted with some satisfaction.  There are many theories circulating about why governments like Brazil would choose to support this resolution.  Especially those governments who seemingly do not have an entrenched interest in this matter.  Was money changing hands behind the scenes?  Were political favours being traded?  Are the pro-Palestinian voting trends so entrenched in the international community, that breaking them is almost impossible?  We will probably never know the answer to this question, although speculation is rife.  The thing that has become clear, is that even those countries who supported the vote feel some need to show regret in an attempt to make their public position a little more acceptable.

The resolution in its current wording, not only ignores the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, it ignores the Christian connection too.  The Christian countries which voted in favour of the resolution were effectively supporting this world view as well.  It is inconceivable that Christian countries would promote exclusive Muslim rights to the this holy city and its holy sites.  Perhaps their eagerness to condemn Israel caused them to lose sight of this?  It is no coincidence that it has only been under Israeli rule over Jerusalem that all three monotheistic religions have been allowed free access to their holy sites.  History has shown that Arab or Muslim rule over Jerusalem is tantamount to denying the rights of other religions to their holy sites.  How ironic it is that UNESCO has chosen to castigate Israel for its rule over Jerusalem, when this is the one period in Jerusalem's history that has ensured free access to all who come in peace and security to worship.

We can take some comfort from the fact that fewer countries supported the most recent resolution than the one before.  And also from the fact that some of the thinking personalities in leadership positions spoke out against the senselessness of the rhetoric.  I sense that the tide of opinion against Israel could be turning.  Whereas supporting anti-Israeli resolutions has always seemed easy to do by many in the international community, irrespective of how ridiculous the text was, it appears as though people are now thinking a little more before giving blind support against Israel.  That is an optimistic sign.  The battle is, however, far from won, and many more similar resolutions are expected in the future.  Perhaps members of the international community will see more and more what the truth of the anti-Israel campaign is truly about.

Israel could be standing on the threshhold of a new period in international politics and diplomacy.  A new secretary-general is due to take over leadership at the UN in 2017 that could signal a change in some attitudes.  If organisations like UNESCO are going to insist upon passing ridiculous resolutions like the one discussed above, it may also assist in bring the attention of the international community to the single-minded bias against Israel that exists in UN organisations.  The next organisation on the list would be the UNHRC, which has the dubious distinction of isolating Israel as the only country forced to appear as an item on the agenda of all its meetings to explain its actions.

Dreaming costs nothing.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Obama's Insult

Image courtesy Financial Times https://www.ft.com
US President Barack Obama was in attendance on Friday at the funeral of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, and was invited to eulogise the last of Israel's founding fathers.  Obama's attendance and eulogy was evidence, if any was needed, of Peres's standing in the international community and the circles in which Peres has moved during more than six decades of international diplomacy.  In spite of Peres's persona as an international statesman, his funeral was an intensely personal event for Israel and for members of the Peres family.  This fact seems to have been lost on President Obama judging by the text of his eulogy.

It almost felt as though Obama was trying using his attendance at the funeral to compete with the last US president who attended the funeral of an Israeli statesman just over 20 years ago.  On that occasion, President Bill Clinton created the simple but iconic phrase, "shalom chaver"(goodbye friend), when eulogising late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  Obama's own attempt at creating an icon of a Hebrew phrase was not simple enough, and fell flat.  Obama's phrase, "toda raba chaver yakar" (thank you dear friend) seemed to be too much of a take on Clinton's original phrase, and seemed much less sincere than the words uttered by Clinton two decades ago.  Even Bill Clinton's own eulogy on Friday of Shimon Peres seemed more sincerely spoken than that of Obama.

Obama had lost his way in his speech, and in the hearts of Israelis, long before the "toda raba chaver yakar" was uttered.  In fact, he had already succeeded in putting a foot wrong in his remarks of welcome, long before reaching the main part of his speech.  As one would expect at such an occasion, President Obama acknowledged members of the Peres family in mourning, Israeli leaders and representatives and other world leaders in attendance at the funeral.  This is where things started to go wrong.  Out of all the foreign leaders, who attended the funeral, President Obama chose to mention only one by name in acknowledging his presence.  That was the name of Palestinian Authority President Abbas whose presence, he said, "was a sign of unfinished business"!

That one comment infuriated me, and many of my fellow Israelis.  Is this what Obama's attendance at the funeral was all about?  To promote his political agenda and highlight his political failings, at the state funeral of one of Israel's founding fathers?  And what did Obama hope to achieve by making this comment?  His ability to achieve anything in Middle East peace-making is long past, as he enters the "lame duck" period of his presidency.  So what positive could have come from this comment?  To me, his comments indicated a lack of respect to those whose hospitality he was enjoying.

Out of all the elected leaders who had accepted the invitation of the Peres family and the Israeli government to attend the funeral, why did Obama choose to single out the one leader who does not enjoy a democratic mandate from his people to rule?  And did he not understand that this was also the leader who has supported waves of terrorist attacks that have been undertaken against Israel and Israelis over the past few months and years?  Even though Abbas may not have personally ordered these terror attacks to take place in the way that his predecessor did, he has provided Palestinian Authority money to the families of terrorists who were killed during the course of their murderous activities.  And he has sent out messages of sympathy and made condolence visits to the families of these evil murderers.  In doing so, Abbas has made clear to his people that such activities are acceptable and desirable.  This, in turn, creates a new generation of terrorists.  So for him to be standing on the hallowed ground of Jerusalem's Mount Herzl at the funeral was already a huge concession in the view of many Israelis, perhaps an unjustified and undesirable concession.  But Obama succeeded in rubbing salt into the wounds by choosing to give credibility and international standing to a man who is most unworthy of this.

What was the unfinished business that Obama was referring to?  He would say that it is the unfinished business of making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  But the Palestinians show little desire to finish this, and have taken no active and meaningful steps in this direction.  In Israel's view, the unfinished business is that of removing the objective to destroy Jews and the Jewish homeland from the charter of the PLO, and to openly and unequivocally recognise Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.  Until that unfinished business is taken care of, and the support for terrorists is ended, there will be no further business.

There is no doubt that Obama was conscious that his comments would be controversial.  He is well aware of the position that Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken on the issue of the peace talks, and the stand taken by the Palestinians.  These remarks were made with full knowledge that they would cause a reaction, and that they would not be welcome.  This represents an insult to his hosts, and was inappropriate and uncalled for.

The actions by the US president seem consistent with his behaviour towards Israel over the last few years.  During the time of Obama's presidency, the Palestinian Authority has had its status at the United Nations upgraded, been accepted as a party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and taken on a much higher standing in the international community.  All of this comes despite continuing to fund and encourage terror, and not being willing to recognise the democratic right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.  Instead of holding the Palestinians responsible for acts of terror and being prepared to criticise this publicly, the US president has continuously castigated Israel for constructing homes in Israeli-ruled territory.

Prime Minister Netanyahu acquiesced to the request by the Peres family to invite Mahmoud Abbas to the funeral, and to seat him in the front row.  His hands were tied in terms of agreeing to grant Abbas permission to enter Jerusalem for the funeral, even though he may have wished to act otherwise.  Obama should have considered this enough, instead of making a more public spectacle of an already uncomfortable situation.  Sometimes less is more, although Obama seemed insensitive to this during his eulogy.

It is somewhat ironic that Abbas's presence at the funeral was also castigated by his own electorate, many of whom considered Peres an enemy of the Palestinian cause.  With so many Palestinians and Israelis joining together in the dislike of Abbas's presence at the funeral, perhaps this should have been a clear enough message to Obama that raising this in public would serve to damage his objectives rather than progress them.  Perhaps this is a clear indication why American peace-making efforts, particularly those driven by Obama, have been so unsuccessful.