It is very dangerous for policy to be based on alternative facts, and even alternative realities. Whether the policymakers believe the alternative realities or merely weave a fabric of falsehoods to
build political support for their decisions, the danger is just as great.
In Washington this has been the prevailing condition for a long time. The Trump administration’s decision to leave the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is one of the most absurd examples.
In July, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee stated that the city of Hebron— and the holy site, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, located therein—were in Palestinian territory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assailed the decision as denying the Jewish connection to the Tomb and the Old City of Hebron. The decision reflected nothing of the kind, as I explained at the time. But the US followed suit and threatened to withdraw from UNESCO, which, considering that Barack Obama was forced, by an old law, to withdraw in 2013 for other reasons, wasn’t much of a threat.
Still, the United States just followed through. It is not much of a blow to UNESCO at this point, but US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s statement on the matter merits some attention:
In July, when UNESCO made its latest outrageous and politically based decision, designating the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as part of Palestinian territory, the United States clearly stated that this decision would negatively affect our evaluation of our level of engagement with the organization.
It remains baffling just what the United States finds so outrageous about a simple factual statement: Hebron is not part of Israel, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is in Hebron, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is not in Israel. This is simple and undeniable. In fact, not even Netanyahu disputes these facts. That’s why he was so quick to divert the issue to one of negating the Jewish connection to the Tomb and to Hebron, something UNESCO never did.
Yet last week, while everyone was concerned with the much more pressing matter of Donald Trump’s decision not to certify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, Nikki Haley announced the administration’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO completely.
The decision was odd, particularly because it was done without informing, much less coordinating with, Israel. One might expect that if you’re taking an action on behalf of an ally, you’d at least tell them. In the case of the US-Israel relationship, close communication and coordination has always been the norm. Even the Obama administration, which was hardly popular in Israel, kept Israel closely informed even when the US was charting a course that Israel disagreed with.
This was not the case here. The US did not even mention the decision to Israel until after reports surfaced in the media. Netanyahu had to then inform his cabinet that they should prepare to follow the US in exiting UNESCO.
This was almost certainly a matter of incompetence. There was no other reason for Trump not to tell Israel about this. As former Obama Mideast envoy Martin Indyk said, this was “a good example of what’s happened to the State Dept. under Trump-Tillerson.”
Initial reporting from The New York Times, since updated to reflect reality, suggested that the Obama administration had decided to withdraw funding from UNESCO based on political considerations after the body admitted the State of Palestine, which had not long before gained non-voting observer status in the UN General Assembly.
In fact, Obama was compelled to withdraw the funding by a 1996 law mandating that any world body recognizing and admitting Palestine could not receive any US funding. At the time, the law seemed unimportant, a straightforward way to appease pro-Israel lobbyists. As the thinking went, by the time any international body the US was involved with admitted a state of Palestine, there would be an agreement on the actual creation of that state.
That is one of the dangers of living in a disconnected reality. Watching Trump make up his own facts to justify his assault on the Iran deal is another.
The UNESCO fiasco holds a longer-term danger. Hebron is a major flash point in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Outside of Jerusalem, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is the most significant Jewish site in Palestinian territory.
The relative silence in the United States toward Haley’s counter-factual and outrageous statement sows a dangerous seed. If Hebron becomes identified in the US collective mind as a Jewish city, or even an Israeli one, the politics around any eventual settlement of the occupation become even more fraught. There has been far too little response—in the media, in Washington, in the whole US zeitgeist—to Haley’s statements.
Hebron is not in Israel by any definition, including Israel’s. The more this idea gets whittled away, the more dangerous a flashpoint Hebron becomes. Although it may not seem like much that the US and Israel are leaving UNESCO, that question matters a great deal.