Israel Allows in UNESCO Mission

PARIS (AP) -

Israel has agreed to allow a mission from UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural arm, to visit sites within the Old City of Yerushalayim starting May 19, a small advance toward renewing peace talks with the Palestinians.

The deal was brokered by an unlikely pair, the United States and Russia, along with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

Israel told UNESCO’s executive board on Tuesday that it also has agreed to take part in a Paris meeting of experts next month on the Mughrabi Ascent, an entrance to Har Habayis.

In turn, the Palestinians will postpone five resolutions condemning Israel. The resolutions won’t be revived until the next executive board meeting in September.

The agreement represented a mini-breakthrough on cultural issues.

“It’s a door that was opened,” Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO Nimrod Barkan said later by telephone. “It’s a move toward confidence building and an attempt to see whether there is forward movement.”

He also said it was a first step toward depoliticizing UNESCO “and resuming UNESCO’s professional work in … Israel, potentially.”

Palestinian Ambassador Elias Sanbar called the agreement “an achievement.”

The monitoring mission and meeting aim to safeguard the cultural heritage of the Old City. It would be the first such mission since 2004, due to bitter differences between Israel and a U.N. agency that has been hostile to it.

“The last three years, UNESCO was swamped with political denunciation of Israel,” the Israeli ambassador said, “and the continued professional work on World Heritage sites became impossible.”

The deal “represents a critical step forward towards depoliticizing UNESCO and signals a major shift towards a more constructive approach to cultural heritage issues,” Ambassador David Killion said in a statement.

Killion praised Russia’s “tremendous leadership” at an executive board session last fall in getting the five Palestinian resolutions condemning Israel postponed.