UNESCO, the United Nations cultural arm, has designated the old city of Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs there as Palestinian World Heritage sites in “danger” from Israeli occupiers.
The identification of Hebron as solely Palestinian, despite its historic Jewish character going back to biblical times, is entirely consistent with UNESCO’s repeated resolutions warning of similar “danger” that Israeli “occupation” poses in Jerusalem to the Haram al-Sharif. One wouldn’t know from the exclusive use of that Arabic term for the spot that Jews call the Temple Mount, where both Holy Temples stood long before the advent of Islam, that it is Judaism’s holiest site.
Some downplay the significance of a UN agency denying the Jewish connection to its heritage sites. After all, they say, the Hebron and Cave of the Patriarchs designations were passed with only 12 states voting in favor at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The Palestinian Authority, the thinking goes, admitted to UNESCO in 2011 despite not constituting a state, is merely showing off its ability to evoke the usual automatic Arab, Muslim, and allied support that anti-Israel resolutions can generally summon up throughout the world body.
But they do in fact take the wording of these resolutions very seriously, and have been building a record at the UN, often with support of other, sometimes uncomprehending, member states, with the goal of undermining the raison d’être for Israel’s founding.
Indeed, the UNESCO measures are just the tip of an iceberg. While on record in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinian Authority is out to ensure that if and when that point is reached, the Israeli state is not recognized as a Jewish state. In working toward that goal, it is aided and abetted, above all, by its international Muslim allies. A quick look back indicates the degree of success this diplomatic campaign has already achieved.
Not that long ago, the intimate and incontrovertible historical connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel was obvious to virtually everyone, and it was what provided the moral basis for the creation and acknowledged legitimacy of the State of Israel.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution dividing Mandatory Palestine into “Independent Arab and Jewish States.” The mention of a Jewish state was no slip of the pen: it is repeated some 30 times in the text of the resolution. Indeed, the term “Jewish state” first reached public notice in 1897 as the title of Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet Der Judenstaat, which inaugurated the Zionist movement. The Balfour Declaration, issued by the British government two decades later, and which formed the basis for the international recognition of Zionism, called for the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The Jews in Palestine acted on the UN decision and established the State of Israel in May 1948. The Palestinian Arabs rejected the offer of a state of their own, and, along with neighboring Arab countries, went to war to destroy Israel. They lost, and what could have become their state 70 years ago was instead divided between Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza). No Arab country would recognize Israel until Egypt did in 1979.
Fast forward to 1993, when Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords. Tellingly, while Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the time, recognized the Palestinian people’s right to national self-determination, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat recognized, or purported to recognize, only “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” with no mention of the Jewish identity of the state or the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination.
Ever since, even those Palestinian leaders who talk in favor of a two-state solution will not call one of those states Jewish, and carefully avoid the formula “two states for two peoples,” both because they will not accept the legitimacy of sovereignty for the Jewish people in any part of the region, and because they look forward to a day when demographic trends and a hoped-for “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian refugees will make Israel into a second Palestinian state.
Hence the ongoing Palestinian denial of Jewish historical and religious roots in the Land of Israel. At the Camp David negotiations in 2000, Arafat shocked President Bill Clinton during a discussion of how to assign rights to the Temple Mount by blurting out, “What temple? The Jews had no temple here. It’s a legend.” Today, as the UNESCO votes and the often blasé international reaction to them demonstrate, no one is shocked anymore by blatant Palestinian lies about unassailable historical facts.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas claims to be ready to resume negotiations with Israel for a two-state solution. He can prove that he means it by adding that one of those states shall be Jewish, thereby recognizing the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination, just as Israel has recognized the legitimacy of Palestinian self-determination. To underscore, this is not just a debating point, but gets to the very heart of the conflict. If there is to be an enduring resolution, it must include the acknowledgement by both sides of two states for two peoples.
Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.