The World As I See It: Based on Interviews With Malcolm Hoenlein

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi)

What impact do you think the United States’ decision to leave UNESCO will have on the organization itself? Will they heed the reprimand or just have a freer hand to continue what they have done in the past? How will it affect the legitimacy of its moves and decisions?

I think the Administration’s decision makes a very important statement not only to UNESCO, but also to other U.N. agencies that might be considering formal recognition of the Palestinian state or making other openly anti-Israel moves. It shows that the U.S. is serious about the objections it has raised about reform within the U.N. and about ending the blatant anti-Israel bias.

This is not the first step America has taken on this front. Since 2011, when UNESCO recognized and admitted a Palestinian state to full membership, the U.S. has withheld its dues as mandated by American law that agencies not recognize a Palestinian State before a peace agreement with Israel is reached. America’s move has far more than symbolic consequences, as roughly a quarter of the budget of most U.N. agencies comes from the U.S.

The administration’s decision has already brought results. Some European countries (and others) have begun to criticize and express frustration with the situation at UNESCO and at the U.N. in general vis-a-vis Israel, even though some of these very nations have been guilty of going along with the votes that led the U.S. to take this step, often without understanding the implications of the resolutions, or maybe even without taking the time to even read them.

People are too quick to dismiss the impact of UNESCO’s actions as well as those of other U.N. agencies. They are relevant and can be consequential. They can slowly establish new norms and rewrite history and reality which, in this instance, erases the connection of the Jewish people to their holy sites.

Another effect we have seen since the U.S. announcement is that a group of Arab states withdrew the annual set of anti-Israel resolutions, putting off the submission for six months. They stated that they felt that given the present climate, advancing the resolution would be counterproductive, which I believe has a lot to do with the U.S. withdrawal. They very well might come back after six months, but for now, it’s off the table.

In terms of whether America’s exit will allow anti-Israel voices an even freer hand at UNESCO, I doubt it will have that effect. Everything UNESCO has been doing until now occurred while the U.S. was at the table as a voting member and now, more recently, as an observer. America has said that it wants to remain involved as a non-member state which will still allow its voice to continue to be heard. The fact that the agency has continued to function over the past six years shows that it is capable of doing so without U.S. funds, although I do think the withdrawal diminishes the legitimacy of UNESCO and the loss of income decreases its effectiveness.

While the timing of the announcement was not a reaction to any specific vote, I think President Trump and Ambassador Haley have made it clear that this was their position and they have now just put their policy of holding the U.N. accountable into action.

What impact do you feel the election of Audrey Azoulay as UNESCO’s new director-general will have on the agency vis-a-vis Israeli-Palestinian issues? Besides being Jewish, does her record give us any meaningful indications?

We will have to see what happens when she actually takes charge. I did meet with her while she was a candidate for the post. Her father is a long-term Jewish advisor to the kings of Morocco, including the present one. Azoulay herself served as minister of culture in France, but does not have much of a track record on Israel-related issues.

We are certainly pleased that her main competitor, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, who had been in the lead for some time, did not win the post. Al-Kawari has had multiple anti-Israel and anti-Semitic episodes, including making quite a few troubling statements, and is closely connected with many in the virulently anti-Israel camp. I do think that this played a role in his defeat, which was quite close at 30-28.

There were certainly other factors as well. Qatar has interests and affiliations that make many countries, including some in the Arab world, suspect them. There are allegations that Qatar spent a lot of money on the campaign. The Saudis and the UAE made it clear that they did not want a Qatari for the job amid their covert conflict. There was no unified front supporting Al-Kawari, whereas Azoulay is somewhat known from her previous positions, and the fact that UNESCO is based in France presumably helped her candidacy as well.

Even if she stakes out a more moderate position on Israel than many of her colleagues at UNESCO, her power remains limited. Her predecessor, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, spoke out against anti-Israel bias and votes on several occasions. She said the right things on numerous occasions, but was not able to stop the council’s actions that she opposed. Ultimately, the director-general is a first among equals and it is the votes of members that carry the day.

I cannot say that I am optimistic about Azoulay simply because we have no real record to base that on, but I would say that I am hopeful that she will be a positive presence at UNESCO.

As somewhat of an aside, while some of our biggest problems with UNESCO stem from their constant attempts to sever the Jewish people’s connection to the Kosel and other holy sites in Israel, there have been some recent archaeological finds that further back up the history of the Batei Mikdash and Jewish history in Yerushalayim. In recent weeks, archaeologists found that the Kosel actually extends eight meters beneath ground level, in the area adjacent to the Kosel plaza. They also found a 1,700-year-old Roman amphitheater which could tell us more about what happened to the Temple Mount after the second Churban and about the life of Jews under Roman rule. They are still digging and are hoping to find artifacts from the first Beis Hamikdash as well. The truth of our past is being exposed just as many in the world are doing everything they can to deny it. Besides the political implications, these are irrefutable proofs of the truths of Tanach that we should be teaching our own children about as well.

Hoenlein, Trump
President Donald Trump speaks about the Iran deal from the Diplomatic Reception room of the White House earlier this month. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s decision not to certify the Iran nuclear deal certainly sends a strong message, but even some initial opponents of the deal have expressed concern that this action seems to lead to a very uncertain future. It is unlikely that any U.S. allies will go along in re-enacting sanctions on Iran and Iran itself swiftly ruled out any amendments or renegotiation. As such, where does the move put the situation?

It’s important to make it clear that “decertifying” the deal does not mean pulling out. This is an interim step that simply says that the president cannot sign off on Iran’s compliance because of continued violations of the letter and spirit of the agreement. All this is actually a more limited move than how it is being portrayed, but it is still significant.

Taking a harder line on Iran than the Obama administration did is not a political matter. Given Iran’s human rights violations in their own country and their continued support of terror around the world, there is bipartisan support for increased sanctions against them. The U.S. did designate the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] as a terrorist entity and sanctions were imposed on countries and entities doing business with them.

Regardless of whether other countries are willing to go along, I think that if companies are given a choice of doing business with the U.S. or with Iran, the path they will take is pretty clear. America is not alone in its search for a way to improve the nuclear agreement. France’s President Emmanuel Macron and others are working to adjust the sunset clause, which gives Iran a free hand at weapons development at the end of the agreement, as well as working to amend other provisions.

None of these parties, including the U.S., wants to scuttle the deal now. To the contrary, they are looking to put down markers and hold Iran accountable for its actions, which are the only way to give the world some confidence in the effectiveness of the agreement.

Deciding not to certify based on Iran’s lack of compliance creates the necessary sense of urgency to force the signatories to come up with a way of making the arrangement more effective now and to be an alarm before Iran gets nuclear weapons.

What we know about Iran’s activities is quite limited. They say that they have cut back their uranium enrichment. But we only can confirm what the inspectors are shown and they do not have access to military sites. History has proven that Iran cannot be trusted, which is why we need maximum inspections and a serious threat of renewed sanctions. Statements by Iran’s leaders that it could accomplish a nuclear breakout within five weeks of dropping the deal gives some indication of the state of their development. We can’t afford to be naive about the very real possibility of a nuclear Iran.

If this breakout comes to pass, it will change the region and unleash an arms race. As it is, their growing conventional weapons is a very serious matter that could allow Iran to expand its hegemonic goals and threaten more countries.

What is your opinion of statements that, however flawed the deal, Iran is complying and U.S. withdrawal would make for a very destabilized and potentially dangerous situation?

Nobody knows what the impact of withdrawal would be, and no one is talking about that at this point. Ambassador Haley made clear the limited scope of the current action.

Refusing to certify sends a much-needed warning, a message to Iran and to other countries. The U.S. wants to see the deal improved and adhered to by Iran. Despite Iran’s bluster that the agreement’s terms are not negotiable, I believe that if the Europeans pressure them, there will be movement. Part of the problem is that the Iranians were given all the relief and payoffs they were looking for when the deal was signed, which compromised a lot of the potential leverage. Yet, they are still very interested in doing business with Airbus, Boeing, and others, which can be held over their heads.

Since the deal was signed, all Iran has done is flaunt their lack of accountability and expand their aggressive activities. They continue to fund militias in Iraq and Syria as well as Hezbollah and Hamas. They are building bases and undermining regimes throughout the Middle East. They have to get the message that they do not have a blank check and that the P5 nations led by the U.S. are determined to assure compliance with all aspects of the agreement. The only way to prevent a breakdown of the situation and the threat of war is to hold them accountable and force them to comply with the deal and with the resolutions.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the possibility of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq since their referendum vote was held. Do you think the U.S. should be doing more to make this a reality, not only as a reward for their efforts against IS, but as a check against Iranian influence in the region?

The Kurdish issue is a very complicated one. The idea of Kurdish autonomy is threatening to some countries in the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. They and others worry what this would do to other minority groups in their countries. We can’t just look at the merits of a state or self-rule; the U.S. has to take a lot of considerations into account when approaching the issue. There is no single Kurdish country, but several locations with significant populations.

There is growing opposition to Iran’s power grab in Iraq, but that issue goes well beyond the future of the Kurds.

A lot of people felt that the Kurdish decision to hold a referendum for independence went too far, too quickly. It’s likely that it was an attempt at gaining leverage so that they could negotiate some level of autonomy. Right now their efforts have been stalled and they are being made to defend their gains in Kirkuk in Iraq.

The far-right AfD was bemoaned by most Jewish groups. There is a significant possibility of the FPO (Freedom Party) in Austria taking a place in the government as well. How do you think this affects the political landscape for Jews in Europe? Do you see a possible upside of it moving mainstream parties to take a stronger stance on terrorism and security issues?

I think there are very serious implications for Jews and for the people of Europe in general. It’s part of a broader trend that has empowered extremists on the right as well as in the left extremist camps.

In Germany in particular, but elsewhere as well, there has been a lot of frustration over the way immigration has been handled by the mainstream political leadership. People see serious problems of rising crime rates and the burdens placed on society by the choice to take in a million refugees.

There is frustration and alienation as well among many of the immigrant groups themselves, who feel they have not realized the dream of what they expected to find in the West in terms of jobs and opportunities. These feelings attract more of them to radicalization, only making the situation more volatile.

All this has created a real dilemma for these countries and decisions will have to be made in terms of how these populations will be integrated, and so on.

Extremists on both the right and the left have been successful in exploiting these tensions. I do not think that this trend will diminish any time in the near future and the demographic shifts are only going to be more pronounced.

In terms of moving the mainstream to change, there is the question of what they can do at this point. The armies of several Western European countries are already on the streets, doing what is essentially police work. The burden is very great and will only increase as more trained terrorists with E.U. passports return from Syria as IS continues to crumble. The challenge is only getting greater.

British officials said that they had stopped 7 terror attacks this year alone and that they are following 3000 extremists, and foiled 20 attacks in the last 4 years.n

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