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Rare Israeli-Palestinian compromise raises hopes for U.N. cultural agency

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By Reuters

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – Israeli and Arab diplomats agreed resolutions on Jerusalem and Palestinian education at the U.N. cultural agency on Wednesday, a rare show of consensus as UNESCO seeks to convince Israel to change its mind about quitting.

The United States and Israel announced a year ago that they would quit UNESCO at the end of 2018 over what they described as persistent anti-Israeli bias.

France’s Audrey Azoulay, who was named days later as the head of the body, has sought to persuade them to reconsider. She has pledged to restore the relevance of the Paris-based body but has been hobbled by regional rivalries and a lack of money.

Under UNESCO’s mediation, the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian delegations compromised on resolutions covering the protection of Jerusalem’s Old City and Palestinian education.

The texts promote schools and training programmes, while divisive issues were set aside in annexes of the agreements.

Two European diplomats said the compromises had raised hopes that Israel could be persuaded to postpone or even cancel its decision to quit. In the meanwhile, passing a resolution would allow stalled UNESCO projects to continue by setting aside the disputes.

UNESCO is playing on diplomatic ambiguity to get the ball rolling again,” said one of the diplomats.

When asked whether Israel would reconsider its decision to quit UNESCO, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment.

The texts are set to be reviewed again in April, after Israel is due to leave the organisation.

In a statement, Azoulay said the compromise “reminds us of the need to sit around the table here at UNESCO and show goodwill. These are the foundations of the consensus reached again today.”

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been suspended since 2014 and efforts to revive them have not been successful.

The Palestinians were admitted to UNESCO in 2011, against objections from Israel, which argues that Palestine should not be admitted as a member state of UN bodies until it achieves statehood through an agreed process at the end of talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in September that UNESCO, whose full name is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, should stop passing resolutions that “deny the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, between the Jewish people and our eternal capital.”

A UNESCO diplomatic source said the compromise showed that Israel and the United States should reconsider quitting, given years of previous stalemate at the body.

“There is a real question here for the Americans and especially for the Israelis to see what conclusions they draw from this decision,” the source said.

(Reporting by John Irish; Additional reporting by Ori Lewis)