PARIS — After years of crisis and lethargy, UNESCO — the United Nations' agency in charge of education, culture and science — is showing small signs of revival. During a World Heritage Committee meeting last month in Manama, Bahrain, the texts regarding the historic preservation of the Old City and Walls of Jerusalem and of Hebron were unanimously ratified. And that included support from both the Israeli and Palestinian representatives.
This vote would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier. In July 2017, a first draft of the declaration which mentioned the heritage status of the Old City of Hebron had infuriated Israel. That same year, in October, Israel and the United States had announced their withdrawal from the UN agency — which will be effective at the end of 2018 — considered a symbol of the multilateralism abhorred by both Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The adoption of consensual texts creates a "win-win" situation, and all parties emerge stronger: by avoiding hostile rhetoric and reducing political tensions we put ourselves in a position to let UNESCO do much more to fulfill its mandate," explains to Le Monde the new head of the agency Audrey Azoulay.
Nine months after her surprise election last October, the former French culture minister can chalk up this first success — has no intention of stopping there. "Through our role as a facilitator, we give ourselves the possibility to act in favor of all parties," she adds.
UNESCO' Director-General Audrey Azoulay — Photo: Authueil
Each year, the issue of Jerusalem embodies all the tensions within this Paris-based organization, which was the first UN agency in 2011 to accept Palestine as a full member. The U.S. had stopped contributing financially to UNESCO, denouncing the agency's "systematic anti-Israeli bias," and the slate of its contributions peaked at $550 million in late 2017. "U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared, in announcing the withdrawal from UNESCO.
The subtle shift began to take form in April, well before the Manama meeting, when Azoulay worked out a draft declaration with her team. "My goal was to reach terms that were acceptable to everyone, even if they still had opposite views, so as to reopen a dialogue," she explains.
The European Union as well as the United States, although theoretically on its way out, support the new director. The toughest parts of the declaration criticizing "the occupying power" are appended. "At UNESCO we are below the radar, this allows us to do many things," says one member of the director's team. "The Palestinian and Israeli representatives have received a green light at the highest level."
The outgoing Israeli ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen said he welcomed "the new personality and the new energy brought by the new Director," adding that he was going to recommend his government reconsider its decision to withdrawal or "at least to postpone it for a year." These remarks are all the more surprising as they come from someone who was always quick to denounce the organization's resolutions which in the eyes of the Israeli's authorities use heritage protection as an excuse to deny any link between Judaism and its historic sites including Jerusalem.
The Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar is pleased as well. "The document clearly reaffirms the principle of maintaining Jerusalem and Hebron on the list of endangered heritage, which is essential," explains the Palestinian official. Sanbar welcomes the commitment made by Azoulay "who fully plays her part as an intermediary, with a perfect balance of the two parties." The art of diplomacy is to reconcile what, at first, seems irreconcilable.
Israel's change of heart could also influence the United States.
The new director-general of the organization is a graduate of l'ENA, the elite French private school created by Charles de Gaulle that has long trained the country's top political leaders and civil servants. Azoulay was nominated just a couple months before UNESCO was set to vote for its new leader, and most thought she had no chances of winning. The Arab countries felt it was their turn to run the organization and an ugly campaign was waged against her, which targeted her Jewish origins. She was ultimately elected thanks to divisions within the Arab representatives, as well as her widely acknowledged diplomatic skills and the constant support of French President Emmanuel Macron.
If Israel, acknowledging the risks of an empty-chair policy, decides not to leave UNESCO, it would be a key, symbolic victory for Azoulay. "All Israeli diplomats are in favor of staying part of UNESCO, but the issue is very delicate," notes a diplomat. "Can Israel distance itself from the U.S., which is firmly convinced about leaving?"
Israel's change of heart could also influence the United States, and prompt a postponement of its departure as well. This is the best-case scenario at UNESCO headquarters in central Paris. "Even if it is the least plausible option, it has now become a possible one."
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