JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday criticized the U.N.'s cultural agency for postponing an exhibit on Jewish connections to the Holy Land following objections from Arab countries.
The spat centers around one of the thorniest issues at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state. Israel says there cannot be Mideast peace without Palestinian acceptance of Israel as the Jewish homeland. The Palestinians say such recognition would undercut the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel's own Arab minority.
The exhibition, which is called "People, Book, Land — The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land," had been scheduled to open on Jan. 20 at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. But late last week, UNESCO abruptly announced it was delaying the exhibit after 22 Arab member states said in a letter that it could disrupt Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The U.N. agency also said it also needed extra time to revise "unresolved issues relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points" that member states could perceive as "endangering the peace process."
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a U.S. Jewish group that co-organized the exhibit, said UNESCO had already approved the exhibit and even begun setting it up at UNESCO's Paris headquarters.
"This is absolutely preposterous," said Heir. "The educational and cultural headquarters of the United Nations (is saying) to the world, 'Every people's history is welcome to be told in these corridors, except for one people, the Jewish people.'"
The exhibit was to show roughly 30 illustrated panels showing the long history of the Jewish people in the Holy Land, from the days of the biblical patriarch Abraham to modern day Israel as a high-tech powerhouse.
"One of the things that this exhibition very clearly shows is that the Jewish presence in the holy land has been continuous," said the creator of the exhibit, Hebrew University professor Robert Wistrich. "This is the accurate true story and it goes against the fashionable but highly misleading perception that the Jewish presence is the result of some kind of late 19th century colonial project or is the consequence of the Holocaust."
Wistrich said every line of the text had been "scrutinized and vetted and examined and re-examined" by UNESCO experts. He called it "absolutely mindboggling" that the entire exhibit had been called off by what he said was "an entirely predictable" objection by Arab countries.
Speaking to his Cabinet, Netanyahu rejected the claim that the exhibit would harm peace negotiations. "It would not harm the negotiations. Negotiations are based on facts, on the truth, which is never harmful," he said.
Netanyahu has argued that the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as Jewish state is the main stumbling block to peace. Many Palestinian officials deny or dispute Jewish historical ties to Israel.
The Palestinians say that such recognition would harm claims by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants who wish to return to lost properties in what is now Israel. They also say it would harm the rights of Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-fifth of the population.
Israel has a long history of contentious relations with UNESCO, going back its endorsement of a resolution in 1975 equating Zionism with racism. While the agency has worked to change its image of being anti-Israel, UNESCO granted Palestine full membership in 2011. The decision enraged Israel and prompted the U.S. to suspend its funding of the agency. Washington had provided roughly one-fifth of UNESCO's budget.
The American ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has called on UNESCO to open the exhibit. "UNESCO's decision is wrong and should be reversed," said Power. "UNESCO is supposed to be fostering discussion and interaction between civil society and member states, and organizations such as the Wiesenthal Center have a right to be heard and to contribute to UNESCO's mission."
Ian Deitch contributed to this report.