Elliott Abrams: UNESCO Shows Its Ignorant Face Again

A boy prays in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City on November 28, 2012. The Old City is holy to the world's three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For Jews it incarnates ancient Israel, for Christians it is where Christ spent the last days of his life, and for Muslims, it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Elliott Abrams writes that a recent UNESCO vote wipes out Jewish and Christian history in Jerusalem by referring to it only in Muslim terminology. Marko Djurica/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

There is little to be added to the scorn rightfully shown in the United States and in Israel (which has cut all ties to UNESCO) toward the UNESCO vote this week that in essence wipes out Jewish and Christian history in Jerusalem by referring to it only in Muslim terminology.

UNESCO's own director general, Irina Bokova, criticized the vote, saying, "Jerusalem is the sacred city of the three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site."

The following nations voted yes: Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chad, China, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritius, Mexico, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam.

Six countries voted no: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

These were the abstentions: Albania, Argentina, Cameroon, El Salvador, France, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Haiti, India, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Paraguay, Saint Vincent and Nevis, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda and Ukraine. (Serbia and Turkmenistan were absent from the vote, presumably deliberately to avoid the issue entirely.)

The Times of Israel reported a bit of good news in this voting pattern:

Losing a vote 24-6 is a clear diplomat defeat; there is no other way to describe it. But when one takes a closer look at the outcome of Thursday's vote, there is another side to the story, in which a silver lining of sorts emerges that was almost lost in the chorus of outrage.

Compared to the April vote on the same matter, which similarly turned a blind eye to the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, Thursday's result marked a not-insignificant improvement, from an Israeli perspective.

Seven countries that just six months ago voted in favor of the resolution now abstained, among them heavyweights France and India.

After an Israeli outcry over the April vote, Paris had admitted that its yes vote was a mistake and so the French abstention was not really a surprise. But Israeli officials did not expect countries like India and Sweden to refuse backing the Palestinian draft, which was sponsored by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan. (The other countries which surprisingly changed from yes to abstention were Spain, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Guinea and Togo.)

Israeli diplomacy must be given real credit for these switches. Still, what is Morocco doing lending its name to this kind of Palestinian activity?

Why couldn't France join Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands in voting no?

It's striking that no European country supported this resolution, but why couldn't every one of them oppose it, having, one assumes, some knowledge of the true history of the Middle East?

And did Japan really have to join the jackals here?

The vote shows that plenty of countries are tired of the Palestinian and broader Arab abuse of the U.N. system, but very few profiles in courage. One should take note that Albania, which abstained, is the only Muslim-majority country to do so and deserves credit.

And then there are the yes votes, which are appalling: Outside the Muslim world, they were Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Vietnam and, of course, Russia and China.

This vote further discredits UNESCO, of course, but it also discredits the countries that supported or did not oppose a resolution that is entirely political and entirely divorced from history. One can hope (a dim hope, I suppose) that in some of those countries there will be discussion and debate over the vote.

While damaging UNESCO, the resolution gained nothing for the Palestinians. There was no reason to support it except the usual U.N. tropism against Israel. Still, that automatic majority is weakening, a result of years of effort by the Benjamin Netanyahu government.

And the best comment on all of this was made by Netanyahu in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on September 22:

The U.N., begun as a moral force, has become a moral farce. So when it comes to Israel at the U.N., you'd probably think nothing will ever change, right? Well, think again.

You see, everything will change, and a lot sooner than you think. The change will happen in this hall, because back home, your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes towards Israel. And sooner or later, that's going to change the way you vote on Israel at the U.N.....

I believe the day is not far off when Israel will be able to rely on many, many countries to stand with us at the U.N. Slowly but surely, the days when U.N. ambassadors reflexively condemn Israel, those days are coming to an end….

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished delegates from so many lands, I have one message for you today: Lay down your arms. The war against Israel at the U.N. is over.

Perhaps some of you don't know it yet, but I am confident that one day, in the not too distant future, you will also get the message from your president or from your prime minister informing you that the war against Israel at the United Nations has ended.

Yes, I know, there might be a storm before the calm. I know there is talk about ganging up on Israel at the U.N. later this year. Given its history of hostility towards Israel, does anyone really believe that Israel will let the U.N. determine our security and our vital national interests?

We will not accept any attempt by the U.N. to dictate terms to Israel. The road to peace runs through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not through New York.

But regardless of what happens in the months ahead, I have total confidence that in the years ahead, the revolution in Israel's standing among the nations will finally penetrate this hall of nations.

I have so much confidence, in fact, that I predict that a decade from now an Israeli prime minister will stand right here where I am standing and actually applaud the U.N.

But I want to ask you: Why do we have to wait a decade? Why keep vilifying Israel? Perhaps because some of you don't appreciate that the obsessive bias against Israel is not just a problem for my country; it's a problem for your countries too.

Because if the U.N. spends so much time condemning the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, it has far less time to address war, disease, poverty, climate change and all the other serious problems that plague the planet.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.