The position of Italy on the UNESCO Executive Board’s decision 200 EX/25 and the ‘Al Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif’ or ‘Temple Mount’ question

CHAMBER OF DEPUTIES, XVII LEGISLATURE, 699th MEETING, 26 OCTOBER 2016.

On 26 October 2016, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, answered three parliamentary questions regarding the abstention of Italy on Decision 200 EX/25 on Occupied Palestine approved by the UNESCO Executive Board on 13 October 2016. The decision was adopted with 24 votes in favour, 6 against, and 26 abstentions. The text of the decision regrets ‘the Israeli refusal to implement previous UNESCO decisions concerning Jerusalem’ and deplores ‘the failure of Israel, the occupying Power, to cease the persistent excavations and works in East Jerusalem particularly in and around the Old City’. In section 25.1.A, the decision makes reference to several issues related to the ‘Al Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif’ condemning, inter alia, ‘escalating Israeli aggressions […] against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their holy site’, as well as deploring ‘the continuous storming’ of the mosque ‘by Israeli right-wing extremists and uniformed forces’. In doing so, the resolution does not make reference to the Jewish ‘Temple Mount’. Mr Gentiloni started by illustrating the Italian position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more generally:

[…] I believe that the Italian position has been clear and consistent for many years, that is, we are one of those countries that insists on the need to pursue a strategy leading to the two-state solution, whereby Israel and Palestine could live peacefully and safely. We must admit, very clearly and openly, that negotiations in this direction have slowed down. Negotiations are at a stalemate and this stalemate has given rise to very serious difficulties: the proliferation of settlements, which Italy has always criticised; and violence, which Italy resolutely condemns. Within this context, I have always maintained […] that formal recognition of the Palestinian State must be a step forward along this road. This is a commitment that the Parliament made and that the Government intends to fulfil, under the conditions provided for by the resolution itself [Translator’s Note: the reference is here to one of the parliamentary motions adopted by the Italian Parliament on the recognition of the Palestinian State] […]: that is, I am quoting, “at the right time and under the appropriate conditions”. All European Governments – the Spanish, French, and British Governments, whose Parliaments at the end of 2014 or in early 2015 passed resolutions similar to the Italian one – stuck to this rule, namely, to avoid playing the card of formal recognition until the moment when it will be more useful and crucial for boosting the peace process, rather than adopting a merely symbolic act. Clearly, in this context, we continue to collaborate with the Palestinian authorities. […]

Answering another parliamentary question, Mr Gentiloni focused more precisely on the Italian abstention on the Executive Board’s decision of 13 October 2016:

I recall […], first of all, that the UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem is not new: it has been put forward twice a year since 2010, and Italy voted on it eleven times. Since 2014, it has included wordings […] that even deny the Jewish roots of the Temple Mount. Now, the Italian diplomacy has never been lenient with these wordings and these positions, I want this to be clear, because no matter the debate on Jerusalem, and on the tensions about access to the Holy places of the three monotheistic religions […], these tensions do not justify in any way those wordings that deny history and reality. During these years, we have been working to reduce support to these positions and, surely not only thanks to Italy, this support decreased. Out of 60 members, 23 only were in favour of the resolution, while 27 abstained and 6 voted against.(*) Nonetheless, we must recognise that the decrease in support has not resulted in a change of these positions […], and proposals retain the same language and do not strike a balance. Therefore, if these proposals will be put forward again next April, the Government will instruct our mission to switch from abstention to a vote against the resolution.

Finally, a third parliamentary question on this issue gave Mr Gentiloni the opportunity to outline the way forward, according to the Italian Government:

[…] I believe that, first of all, we must strongly support the diplomatic efforts of the United States, but also pursue them ourselves, with a view to strengthening and giving effect to the agreements between Jordan and Israel regarding the management of this area. Precisely because this is a fundamental area for the three monotheistic religions, it cannot bear excessive levels of tension. Therefore, we must work for an agreement between Jordan and Israel. Secondly, we must take advantage of the good relationship that Italy has both with Israel and with Palestine to foster the very difficult resumption of negotiations. We do not give up on the idea of two States living in peace and security. When Shimon Peres died, everyone said that this path had to be revived: it is a commitment which must be put in practice. Finally, I believe that we must work to ensure that UNESCO acts within its mandate, because it clearly is – potentially – one of the most important UN institutions, and plays a fundamental role for us Italians. We are proud to be the country with the largest number of sites recognised by UNESCO as world heritage, but at the same time we cannot accept that UNESCO, instead of focusing on the protection of the cultural heritage, becomes a sounding board for political and religious conflicts. Therefore, beside our approach, which I tried to clarify, I believe that there is a lot to do in the next months for the peace process to be resumed in that tormented land.

(*) Translator’s Note: according to the official document published on the UNESCO website, the decision received 24 votes in favour and 26 abstentions. Mr Gentiloni might refer to the fact that Mexico, after voting in favour of the resolution, wished to withdraw its initial support and – at a subsequent meeting held on 18 October – noted for the record that its position on the matter had become one of abstention.

The full Italian version of these statements can be downloaded here

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