Op-Ed by Alan Elsner: Palestinians Play Politics with Birthplace of Jesus


Huffington Post, June 22 - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is again playing politics with a United Nations agency, this time meddling with the status of Jesus' traditional birthplace to score points against Israel.

The Palestinian leader's latest move is to seek to have the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and indeed the entire city, declared as an "endangered site" by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, the U.N. Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Abbas is pushing for a vote when the 21-nation commission meets in St. Petersburg, Russia June 24-July 6, despite the fact that UNESCO experts have dismissed the claim that there is any emergency as a sham. Additionally, the three churches that control the holy site have asked Abbas to refrain, saying they see no emergency either.

The three guardians of the site representing the Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Patriarch recently wrote to Abbas - a letter which they did not make public but which has been verified by the officials at the U.S. mission to UNESCO. Sections of the letter were also published by Foreign Policy.

"We do not think it opportune to deal with this request that the Basilica and its entire complex be included in the list of World Heritage sites, due to different considerations the minor of which is that the operating conditions required by the statues of UNESCO, necessary to include it, do not exist. Thus we hereby reserve our decision on this matter," the church leaders wrote.

The Palestinians won recognition as a full member state of UNESCO last year and, as opponents warned, are losing no time in abusing their status to pursue narrow, biased and groundless claims designed only to embarrass and isolate Israel.

Under U.S. law, the United States stopped paying dues to UNESCO after it accepted Palestine as a state, so its influence in the body has become limited.

Bethlehem is located in the West Bank but Israeli troops withdrew in December 1995 and the city is under the complete administration and military control of the Palestinian National Authority.

The Palestinians say that the site has fallen into disrepair as a result of the Israeli occupation and the international community should undertake repairs urgently to prevent a total collapse of the basilica which dates back to the year 565, although it has been expanded several times over the centuries.

But the World Heritage List's own advisory body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), submitted a report saying that there is no such emergency and no danger of collapse.

"ICOMOS does not consider that the property can be considered to have been severely damaged or to be under imminent threat," the report said.

The most serious threats to the site, it said, were unregulated tourism, rampant development and the failure of the three churches to agree on preservation plan. Rivalry between the churches over control of the site runs deep into history and was one of the proximate causes of the Crimean War in the 1950s.

Despite all of this, there is a serious chance that this absurd vote will go through because of the automatic majority the Palestinians command in all international bodies. To derail it, one third of the countries present and voting must vote "no."

It is deeply regrettable that the Palestinians are cynically exploiting their new status in UNESCO to play politics with a holy place. Disregarding the Church leaders and UNESCO's own experts, they are turning the organization into a mockery. The designation of "World Heritage Site" is valued all over the world. This Palestinian move devalues that as well.

U.S. officials are encouraged that the vote will in all probability be by secret ballot. In open voting, they say, there would be no chance of defeating it because few states want to publicly offend the Palestinians. But in a secret ballot, good sense may prevail.

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