In the 1980s, UNESCO was a theatre for the Cold War. When the USA and the UK walked out in 1984, they cited mismanagement; the real motive was a series of Soviet-led resolutions against press freedom.
In 2009, the Arab bloc front-runner, Egypt’s Education Minister, Farouq Hosni — who threatened to burn any Hebrew book on Egyptian territory — lost in a bitter election to Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova.
At her inauguration, I congratulated Ms Bokova as the first UN leader from a country which saved its Jews in the Second World War. She has since championed Holocaust education and focused on the rights of women in the Muslim world.
These initiatives were overshadowed last year when she became enmeshed in a campaign led by the Arab/Muslim bloc to appropriate Jewish heritage sites in the Holy Land. The World Heritage Committee — a UNESCO affiliate — characterised Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of Machpela as mosques.
As a UN agency not subject to a US veto and which focuses on the Third World, UNESCO was an easy target for the PA. A yes-vote at UNESCO provides some compensation should its campaign in New York for UN membership come to nothing.
The move will result in another US exit from the body, along with its annual dues of 22 per cent of UNESCO’s budget.
Some states bent backwards to justify their yes-vote and it was Austria that, unwittingly, set an unintended challenge: “Our vote is for Palestine to have access to the benefits of UNESCO’s principles.”
The value of this message should have been underscored by the Director General Bokova in her post-vote speech: “Palestine” should now be on probation to test its compliance with UNESCO’s principles.
This would entail the PA’s removal of incitement to hate from all text books; the establishment of freedom of expression and information; the provision of free and full access to education for women (under UNESCO’s Education For All programme) and the recognition and protection of Jewish and Christian heritage sites.
PA reconciliation with Hamas must be conditioned upon the latter’s acceptance of the three EU principles: acceptance of Israel, acceptance of prior agreements and a committment to non-violence. And finally, the probation must require zero tolerance of terorism and a return to bilateral peace negotiations without preconditions.
President Obama could convince the Security Council that the Palestine status debate should be put on hold for now. For UNESCO membership to be meaningful, “Palestine” must prove itself a true partner in the building of a culture of peace.
Shimon Samuels is the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Director for International Relations and its chief delegate to UNESCO