The UNESCO fiasco

(April 22) - Representing a country confronted by an exceptionally difficult series of political and diplomatic challenges, Israel's Foreign Ministry can be forgiven if it occasionally makes an error in judgment. Confronting the hostility to Israel that seems increasingly rampant at the world's various international forums, while simultaneously waging an uphill battle on the front lines of the propaganda war, is certainly not an enviable task. Coupled with carrying out the routine work of inter-state relations, the diplomatic work of the Foreign Ministry obviously requires a careful blend of statesmanship, creativity, and talent.

But Israel's recent zig-zag regarding a delegation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), slated to inspect the Moslem Wakf's archeological terrorism on the Temple Mount, has set a new record for incompetence and ineptitude, one that raises serious questions about the Foreign Ministry's ability to carry out its requisite tasks.

Just three weeks ago, Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO, Arye Gabai, sent a letter to the Paris-based organization informing it of Israel's readiness to host an envoy of the group, Prof. Oleg Grabar of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Studies. Prof. Grabar was to visit Jerusalem in the second week of May to investigate first-hand the destruction of priceless antiquities being carried out by the Palestinian Authority-controlled Wakf on the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site. One of the leading proponents of the mission was Labor MK Collette Avital, who previously served in diplomatic postings in New York and Paris. But, as first reported in The Jerusalem Post on Friday, Israel unexpectedly postponed the mission last week, citing "the prevailing situation in the region." A new date has not been set, and it remains unclear whether the delegation will ever, in fact, pay a visit.

From its inception, the very idea of involving UNESCO in the dispute over digging on the Temple Mount was inane, especially given the organization's long record of anti-Israel animosity. Ever since the Wakf accelerated its wholesale destruction of artifacts on the Mount back in 1996, when it surreptitiously built a new mosque in Solomon's Stables, UNESCO has remained remarkably silent, not once condemning the Palestinian Authority for its desecration of the site. Indeed, UNESCO does not even recognize Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem, and the last time a UNESCO delegation visited, in 1998, it refused to meet with Israeli officials.

In the past, the organization has called for financial sanctions against Israel, passed hundreds of resolutions criticizing Israel's activities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, and denounced Israel's efforts to restore historic and holy sites in Jerusalem. When the UN celebrated its 50th anniversary, UNESCO refused to mention the Holocaust in its World War II resolution, intentionally ignoring Israel's request to include a specific reference to the destruction of European Jewry. Indeed, in an October 22, 2000 press statement, the Foreign Ministry condemned a resolution passed by the UNESCO executive board in Paris and said that Israel would not accept the organization's demand to send an expert to Jerusalem to examine the preservation of the city's cultural heritage. It is therefore all the more astonishing that Avital and the Foreign Ministry would, just six months later, seek a UNESCO expert to visit the Temple Mount.

Having made the dubious decision to host such a mission, the error was compounded by the sudden withdrawal of the invitation. This makes it appear as if Israel has something to hide, and undermines Israel's justified allegations against the Wakf. As archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University noted in a recent e-mail message to people concerned about the Temple Mount digging, the Palestinians are organizing a conference in Cairo together with UNESCO that will publish a "Cairo Declaration Document for Jerusalem Antiquities Preservation."

The document falsely accuses Israel of destroying Islamic antiquities on the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem's Old City in a transparent attempt to divert attention from the PA's own crimes against archeology and history. If such a conference does convene, it will no doubt exploit the cancellation of the UNESCO mission to buttress the Palestinian charges. Hence, by bungling the UNESCO affair, the Foreign Ministry may very well have given the Palestinians an unexpected propaganda windfall.

As egregious as the clumsy handling of the affair is, it should not overshadow the gravity of what is happening on the Mount itself. As the non-partisan Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount - which counts among its members Teddy Kollek and Amos Oz - has pointed out, thousands of square meters of the ancient surface level of the Mount have been dug up by Wakf tractors, causing untold and irreversible damage to the site where the Temples once stood.

As recently as February and March of this year, an ancient arched structure built against the eastern wall of the Temple Mount enclosure was razed by the Wakf's bulldozers while Israeli officials failed to intervene. No other nation in the world would tolerate the brazen desecration of its holiest site, and neither should Israel. (22-04-01)