PARIS -- Israel and the Palestinians agreed on Tuesday to renewed involvement by Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency, in sensitive areas of Jerusalem. The agreement was a small but significant breakthrough in the often highly politicized workings of the agency.
The deal concerns the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls, including the Western Wall and an ascent to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif. It was brokered in an unusual partnership between the United States and Russia, with the help of Jordan, Brazil and the director general of Unesco, Irina Bokova. As part of the agreement, the Palestinians agreed to postpone five resolutions critical of Israel that were pending before the agency.
The willingness of the Palestinians to table the resolutions was a direct result of recent visits to the Middle East by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who secured a Palestinian agreement not to "initiate negative moves in international organizations," said a Middle Eastern ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as Unesco is formally known. The agency, which is based in Paris, accepted the Palestinians as full members in 2011, though the United Nations has not done so.
David T. Killion, the American ambassador to Unesco, said the deal "represents a critical step forward toward depoliticizing Unesco, and signals a major shift toward a more constructive approach to cultural heritage issues."
The Palestinian ambassador, Elias Sanbar, called the deal "an achievement, as for the first time for years we have obtained the implementation of one of the many Unesco decisions concerning Palestine." He praised Jordan, and he said the agreement "results from the deep belief of our delegations to adopt positive and constructive positions," while accepting "the postponement of legitimate and fair resolutions."
The Israeli ambassador, Nimrod Barkan, called the agreement "the culmination of a joint Israeli-American effort, interestingly enough with Russian help since January, to try to move to depoliticize Unesco."
For Israel, the deal represents a concession to the Palestinians, because it runs the risk that Unesco experts will criticize Israel's custodianship over the Old City and its holy sites, which most countries regard as occupied territory. The Old City and its walls will continue to be listed by Unesco as "endangered" World Heritage sites, but Israel will have a right of approval over the experts Unesco assigns to the city.
For their part, the Palestinians are conceding a six-month pause in their regular condemnation of Israel in resolutions over issues like Gaza, the West Bank and education.
Under the arrangement, a 2010 deal for a Unesco "action plan" to inspect and safeguard the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls, including archaeological work, will finally go into effect, with a visit by three experts in mid-May. A group of experts will also convene in Paris next month to discuss what is called the Mughrabi Ascent, the way that non-Muslim visitors (including the Israeli authorities) reach the Haram al-Sharif from the area of the Western Wall below. After a sand embankment there collapsed nearly 10 years ago, a temporary staircase was built, and it has proved controversial. The aim is to forge an agreement among Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan, which administers the Haram al-Sharif, on what should replace the temporary staircase.
Western ambassadors to Unesco gave considerable credit to the Russian ambassador, Eleonora Mitrofanova, who has worked to break the pattern of politicization at the agency, including casting an initial vote six months ago against the Arab bloc on the Palestinian resolutions. Her American counterpart, Mr. Killion, is said to have worked to consolidate the diplomatic opening, and the two ambassadors wrote an unusual joint letter to the head of Unesco's Executive Board in February outlining the compromise that was sealed on Tuesday.
"Progress would also be a clear manifestation of our objective for Unesco to foster peace, dialogue and reconciliation through heritage," the ambassadors wrote.
The United States reacted to Unesco's recognition of the Palestinians in 2011 by cutting off its annual contribution, which supplied 22 percent of the agency's budget. Israel also cut off its contribution. Since then, Unesco has struggled to make ends meet, cutting staff members and programs, and there is resentment in the organization that the Obama administration has so far failed to get Congress to approve a renewal of contributions.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.