Israel suspends ties with UNESCO in spat over Jerusalem holy site

Israel has suspended ties with UNESCO, the UN body in charge of preserving culture and history, after a draft decision that Israel says ignores Judaism's ties to the religion's holiest site.

The draft decision notes the importance of Jerusalem to all three monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- but makes no mention of why the city is significant to Christians or Jews. A subsidiary body of UNESCO's Executive Board passed the resolution Thursday in Paris.

It refers to Jerusalem's holiest site -- known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary -- only by its Muslim name.

The draft decision, which largely criticizes Israel's actions in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, was proposed by a group of Arab countries and drew harsh rebukes from Israel and the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the move as absurd, saying: "To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the Pyramids. By this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost what little legitimacy it has left."

In a letter from Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett following the vote, Israel announced it will freeze all professional activities with UNESCO.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner also criticized the decision. "We are deeply concerned about these kinds of recurring, politicized resolutions that do nothing to advance constructive results on the ground. And we don't believe they should be adopted," Toner said.

The United States stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 over the organization's acceptance of a Palestinian bid for full membership. Washington had contributed $80 million a year to the organization before then.

In April, UNESCO passed a similar decision that Israel and other countries also harshly criticized.

This week's resolution, put forward by Arab countries including Egypt, Algeria and Qatar, was adopted by a 24-6 vote, with 26 abstentions.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs lauded the decision.

"Palestine will continue to defend the rights of our people through all available legal and diplomatic avenues, including UN organizations," a ministry statement said. "Our peaceful agenda will not be derailed by propaganda, nor will our tolerance and adherence to international law by altered by fallacies and cynical spin."

To Jews and Christians, the Temple Mount is the site of the foundation stone on which Adam was created and the site where Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac. To Jews, it is also the site of the First and Second Temples. To Muslims, it is the site where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on his miraculous "night journey."

Responding to Israel's criticism in a statement, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova suggested she wasn't pleased with the decision.

"The outstanding universal value of the City, and the reason why it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, lies in this synthesis, which is an appeal for dialogue, not confrontation," Bokova said. "When these divisions carry over into UNESCO, an organization dedicated to dialogue and peace, they prevent us from carrying out our mission."

Bennett, the Israeli education minister, welcomed Bokova's statement but said it wasn't enough, calling on UNESCO to cancel the decision. "Words are important, but they are not a replacement to the actions of the organization she heads."

The draft decision will go before a full plenary of the UNESCO Executive Board on Tuesday. It will either be adopted unanimously, or be the subject of further debate and a possible vote.