TEL AVIV – An unnamed Arab ambassador to the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO reportedly apologized in secret to his Israeli counterpart for having “no choice” but to vote in favor of a controversial resolution that listed the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs on a list of endangered sites under the sovereignty of a “State of Palestine.”
The Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Aharonoth published a screenshot from Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen’s phone that showed a text message conversation between the Israeli and Arab envoys. The Arab ambassador is believed to be from either Kuwait, Lebanon or Tunisia, three member states on UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee that voted in support of the resolution at the cultural agency’s annual meeting in Krakow, Poland on Friday.
Following the vote, the Arab ambassador sent a Whatsapp message to Shama-Hacohen that read: “Sorry for today, it was too heated, it is difficult to say it was a secret vote…”
A minute later, Shama-Hacohen replied: “I know my friend. For me it is like u did it.” Shama-Hacohen’s text was in reference to the Arab envoy’s walking back on an earlier promise that he would oppose the resolution if the vote was by secret ballot. The vote did not end up being conducted in secret as promised, leading Shama-Hacohen to protest angrily.
The Arab ambassador answered a few minutes later: “No choice…”
The vote passed by 12 to three with six abstentions.
The Israeli envoy said he received five promises of support from member states on the heritage list, including the Arab country. He demanded that the vote take place behind a curtain so as to enable countries to act freely without cameras showing how their envoys voted. However, neither the curtain nor the Polish committee chair Jacek Purchla, who initially agreed to the Israeli request, were present at the start of the vote.
The vote commenced amid Shama-Hacohen’s protests, leading to a heated fracas between the ambassadors.
After the vote, Shama-Hacohen addressed the ambassadors, but stopped in the middle to say he had to take a call from his “plumber,” which was more important to him than the controversial resolution that the agency had just approved.
“There was no plumber,” Shama-Hacohen said later in an interview with Army Radio. “It was a way to end my speech in a way they’ll remember that shows our contempt for the essence of the decision.”
However, he added that despite Friday’s vote, Israel’s standing at the world body has improved. “We’ve turned the corner, from lowering our heads and accepting these decisions quietly to taking up the diplomatic fight. There isn’t a vote that passes without an increase in the number of states that support us, including this vote in Krakow,” the ambassador said.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on Friday called the vote “tragic” and an “affront to history.”
The vote does not recognize any Jewish or Christian ties to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, believed to be the final resting place of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. The Tomb is considered the second holiest site in Judaism after the Temple Mount.
The Palestinian Authority, which sped up the process by claiming “Israeli violations … including vandalism” at the site, hailed the move.
“Despite a frantic Israeli campaign spreading lies and distorting the facts about Palestinian rights, the world has recognized our right to register Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque [the Muslim term for the Tomb of the Patriarchs] under Palestinian sovereignty,” the PA’s foreign ministry said.
“This vote is a success for the diplomatic battle fought by Palestine on all fronts in the face of Israeli and American pressure on member states,” the statement said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed UNESCO for “yet another delusional decision” that endangered the site in question.
“This time they ruled the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a Palestinian site, meaning not a Jewish site, and it is in danger,” he tweeted.
The Foreign Ministry labeled the vote a “moral blot” on the world body, while President Reuven Rivlin said that UNESCO seemed “intent on spreading anti-Jewish lies.”
Netanyahu ordered that another $1 million be cut from Israel’s funding to the UN and instead be put towards establishing a museum aimed at showcasing Hebron’s Jewish history.