Cablegate: Jerusalem Issue

Lucia A Keegan 03/01/2007 12:43:44 PM From DB/Inbox: Lucia A Keegan






DE RUEHFR #0779/01 0600502
R 010502Z MAR 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: The excavation work at the Temple Mount site in
Jerusalem has prompted calls at UNESCO by six Arab states for a rare
special session of the Executive Board. Based on the its
interpretation of a resolution negotiated between the Palestinian
observer and the Israeli Ambassador in the 2006 Vilnius World
Heritage Committee meeting that calls for Israel to provide the
World Heritage Center with all relevant information on plans for
reconstruction of the access leading to the al-Haram ash-Sharif,
Israel has created a new opportunity for those member states seeking
to spread anti-Israeli headlines in the world press. While progress
has been made with efforts to defuse the situation, it is still too
early to determine how the current crisis will play out.

2. (SBU) BACKGROUND: The first extraordinary meeting of the World
Heritage Committee was held in Paris in September 1980 at the
request of seventeen members of the World Heritage Committee to
discuss two issues, one of which was the request by Jordan to
inscribe "the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls" on the World
Heritage list. Although the United States recognized that the
universal and cultural value of Jerusalem was important to all
mankind, it opposed the inscription on the grounds that the
Committee did not have the authority to inscribe this site because
the World Heritage Convention contains articles that state that
nominating state can only nominate those sites which are "situated
in its territory", that there must be the consent of the state
concerned, and that the nominating state provide an effective plan
for the management and protection of the site.

3. (SBU) When the World Heritage Committee decided to place the Old
City of Jerusalem and its wall on the World Heritage List, the
United States disassociated itself from the decision and made the
following statement: "This Committee has taken an impermissible
action and must now abide by the unfortunate consequences. These
consequences are the intrusion of an element of politicization to
the World Heritage Committee... The introduction of Middle East
politics into this Committee cannot but be to the detriment of the
World Heritage Committee and its proud accomplishments to date."

4. (SBU) The site of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls was
put on the World Heritage List of Sites in Danger in 1982. Israel
did not attend these meetings as it did not become a signatory to
the World Heritage Convention until October 1999.

5. (SBU) In July, 2006 in Vilnius, a resolution negotiated by the
Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO and the Palestinian Observer to UNESCO,
Decision 30 COM 7A 34 rev, was adopted by the World Heritage
Committee. Articles 5 states "Reiterates its concern as to the
obstacles and practices, such as archeological excavations or new
constructions, which could alter the outstanding universal value of
the cultural value of the Old City of Jerusalem, including its urban
and social fabric as well as its visual integrity."
Article 6 states "Asks the Israeli authorities to provide to the
World Heritage Centre all relevant information concerning new
buildings planned in and around the Western Wall Plaza, including
the plans for the reconstruction of the access leading to the
al-Haram ash-Sharif."


6. (SBU) The view of the Arab states, led by the Palestinian
Observer who now serves as the head of the Arab Group at UNESCO, is
that this decision, 30 COM 7A.34 Rev, refers to all work relating to
the World Heritage site of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls,
and that the World Heritage Center should have been consulted on all
plans for both the proposed bridge and the archeological
excavations. Because this was not done before work began on
February 6th, they believe that Israel has violated both the Vilnius
decision and its obligations as a signatory of the World Heritage
Convention to refrain from doing anything that might cause damage to
the site.

7. (SBU) The Israeli view is that the decision only refers to the
plans for the construction of the new access ramp, and not to the
archeological excavations, which they say are needed to determine
how that ramp should be constructed. The Israeli government also
believes that UNESCO is interfering in Israeli internal matters. It
understands the need to work with the World Heritage Committee as
much as possible, but believes that the appropriate role of the
World Heritage Center is to give advice, not to instruct a sovereign
state on how to maintain its World Heritage sites.

8. (SBU) On February 7 the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations,
Ambassador Dan Gillerman, wrote a letter to the President of the
Security Council, Ambassador Peter Burian, stating that the
excavations are necessary in order to determine the location of the
pillars for the new bridge (ramp) which must be build because of
safety reasons, that the excavations are being done in a transparent
manner by a team of archeologists and experts using internationally
accepted methods, and that they are being done in an area which is
under Israeli sovereignty and is the responsibility of the
Municipality of Jerusalem and the Government of Israel. The Israeli
Ambassador to UNESCO, David Kornbluth, is using the same arguments
at UNESCO, and is convinced that the public concerns that have been
generated concerning this project are political in nature.


9. (SBU) Immediately after the excavations began on February 6th,
the Palestinian Observer met with the Arab Group to discuss this
matter and to ask the Arab Group to tell the Director-General that
he must take appropriate action to make Israel to stop the

10. (SBU) A letter drafted for the Director General by ADG Culture
Francoise Riviere to send to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was rejected
by the Israeli Ambassador, David Kornbluth, for being
inappropriately inflammatory. He said that there is no language in
the World Heritage convention that permits the Director General to
severely criticize a state for World Heritage violations, especially
when there is no evidence that violations have actually occurred.

11. (SBU) A revised letter was sent by the Director General to Prime
Minister Olmert requesting assurances that the work being done does
not in any way undermine the outstanding universal value of the
site, that Israel fulfill the conditions of the Vilnius decision by
providing all relevant information on the work being done to the
World Heritage Center, and to "cease any action that could lead to
tensions" in Jerusalem. A UNESCO Press Release issued on February
8th stated that the Director General was "alarmed" and "deeply
concerned" by the situation

12. (SBU) On February 13 the Director General issued a Press Release
that congratulated the Major of Jerusalem for suspending the work on
the ramp. The Arab states were angry with this expression of
congratulations as they wanted the work to be stopped, not just

13. (SBU) On February 14 the six Arab members of the Executive
Board, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen, sent a
letter invoking Rule 3, paragraph 1 and 2 of the Rules of procedure
of the Executive Board that states that "The Executive Board may
meet in special session if convoked by the Chairman on his own
initiative or on the request of six members of the Board." In
response to a question by the Mission, the Legal Advisor has
interpreted the work "may" as an imperative and that the Chairman
must follow through on the request.

14. (SBU) The request for a special meeting was supported by many
Islamic countries at UNESCO as well as outside organizations such as
the Arab League, ALECSO, and the OIC. In addition to active
lobbying done by the six Arab members of the Executive Board,
intense lobbying was done, particularly by the Egyptians, in many
capitals of countries on the Executive Board in order to gain
broad-based support for a Special Executive Board meeting.

15. (SBU) On February 17 the Ambassador of India to UNESCO, in her
capacity as head of the ASPAC Group, sent a letter to the
Director-General requesting that a technical mission be sent
immediately to Jerusalem by the World Heritage Center.

16. (SBU) In response to increasingly angry demands from the Arab
and Islamic states for action by UNESCO, the Director-General issued
a Press Release on February 20 stating that he was exploring the
possibility of sending a technical assessment mission to Jerusalem.
(Comment: Although UNESCO wanted to send a technical mission, they
had been asked by the Israeli Ambassador to wait until the GOI made
a decision on whether it would accept such a mission, which in the
past they had refused to do).

17. (SBU) Also on February 20 the Chairman of the Executive Board
sent a letter to the six members of the Bureau, which includes the
U.S., asking them to consider the request made by the Arab states.
He did not ask for a response to his letter.

18. (SBU) On February 22 the GOI decided to invite a UNESCO
technical mission to visit the site in Jerusalem, thereby avoiding
the issue of whether UNESCO has the authority to send a technical
mission against the wishes of a state in whose territory a site is
located. (Comment: In practical terms this would not be possible
since a state can deny the necessary visas to the technical mission,
but that would probably generate serious international pressure on
that state to reverse its decision).

19. (SBU) On February 23 the Director-General issued a Press Release
stating that "following extensive consultations with all the parties
concerned", he would send a technical mission to Jerusalem. The
terms of reference for the technical mission agreed to by the Deputy
Director General Marcio Barbosa and Ambassador Kornbluth state that
the findings of the technical mission will be given to the Director
General who will inform the World Heritage Committee accordingly.


20. (SBU) During the past few days Ambassador Oliver has met with
the Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO, as well as with the Ambassadors of
India, Yemen, Egypt, Greece, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Lithuania, Spain,
Germany, the UK, and the deputy from Norway. The Arab states all
said that the combination of inaction by the Secretariat, the great
importance of the site, and the intense lobbying done in capitals
made it almost impossible for them to back down from their demands.
For example, the Indian Ambassador said that she had been getting
daily cables from Delhi instructing her to show solidarity with
Palestine and the Arab states.

21. (SBU) Although they were all pleased by the decision to send a
technical mission, they said that there would still have to be a
special meeting of the Executive Board since Israel continued to
conduct archeological excavations. The Arab states also claimed
that they did not want to politicize the issue, and rejected the
idea that calling a special Executive Board meeting just before the
regular Executive Board meeting would have that effect.

22. (SBU) Ambassador Oliver disagreed and said that it would
certainly be perceived as a political initiative, particularly since
Israel is not even on the Executive Board. She also said that the
proper venue for discussion of this issue is the World Heritage
Committee, which has responsibility for all issues relating to World
Heritage sites. Moreover, Israel is a member of the World Heritage
Committee. When Ambassador Oliver suggested that the Arab states
call for a special meeting of the World Heritage Committee, the
response was that there was not enough time to do that. (Comment:
Probably the real reason is that it takes two-thirds of the members
of the World Heritage Committee to call for a special session)

23. (SBU) The European countries said that almost no one wanted a
special Executive Board meeting other than the Arab and Islamic
states, and agreed that the World Heritage Committee was the
appropriate venue for a discussion of this issue. However, they
added that they thought it would be very difficult to prevent a
special Executive Board meeting if the Israelis did not suspend the
archeological excavations, and that most of their own governments
had already publicly called for a suspension of the excavations.

24. (SBU) Ambassador Oliver also met with UNESCO's Deputy Director,
Marcio Barbosa, who informed her that the UNESCO technical mission
had left for Israel that morning, February 27. It is expected to
finish its work on Friday March 2.


25. (SBU) On February 28 the GOI announced that it would suspend the
archeological excavations until the UNESCO technical mission had
completed its work. Although the Arab and Islamic states may still
push for a special Executive Board meeting, it is unlikely that they
will be able to persuade other states that a special meeting is
necessary since the work has now been suspended. Many states are
also concerned about the expense of a special meeting, as well as
the precedent of six Executive Board members being able to force
UNESCO to convene a special Executive Board meeting.

26. (SBU) If the technical mission reports that there is no damage
to the site as a result of the excavations, the Arab states will
find it difficult to complain when the excavations are resumed. If
the technical mission reports that damage has or may occur, the GOI
will have to decide what to do.

27. (SBU) Even if there is no special meeting, the issue of
Jerusalem will be discussed at the regular Executive Board meeting
as there already is an item on Jerusalem on the agenda. However,
the debate will be influenced by the report of the technical mission
and by the cooperative attitude of the GOI.

28. (SBU) In a meeting with Ambassador Kornbluth on February 28,
Ambassador Oliver was informed that at the moment the archaeological
excavations will be suspended only during the time when the
technical mission is actually onsite. The Greek Ambassador
(Chairman of Group I) also reported that as a result of numerous
conversations, momentum for a special meeting seems to be slowing
down. In the European Union's coordination meeting all European
countries, with the exception of Austria, were against the idea of a
special meeting. He added that it remains to be seen what the
reaction will be next week when the technical mission returns to

29. (SBU) Mission will continue to work closely with the Israeli
Ambassador and will monitor the situation carefully.

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