15 JUNE 2009


Benita Ferraro-Waldner has always surpassed expectations. In any assignment, the gracious, intelligent, enlightened Austrian lady took her responsibilities seriously, managed with compassionate warmth, and worked as a member of a team. Above all, she maintained her cultured and educated dignity while fully respecting others. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria, once U.N. Chief of Protocol, current High Commissioner of External Affairs of the European Union will clearly be an outstanding Director-General of UNESCO. Additionally, she will be making history as the first woman to assume that post.

We understand there are several candidates, some with much less international experience and one or two who already have outmaneuvered themselves.

One example is an openly publicized political deal blended with Middle East politics -- regarding the candidate of Egypt.

When Egypt, a year ago, put forward the name of its Minister for Culture Farouk Husni for the post of Director General of UNESCO, Israeli embassies around the world were known to publicly oppose that nomination. At the time, Israeli daily Haaretz (10 May 2008), quoted the Egyptian minister as saying he was ready to personally burn Israeli books if found in Egyptian bookstores. The paper went further by claiming he had described Israelis as an illiterate people who stole other people's cultures.

However, in a sudden change, Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a circular on 4 May to all its embassies "in light of the visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu" and "based on understandings" with Egypt, it was decided "to withdraw objections" to the candidacy of Farouk Husni for the post of "Secretary General" (sic) of UNESCO. This time Haaretz sounded satisfied that something "worthwhile" had been obtained in return. What would it be? Total silence.

While the guessing game continues, there is mainly one logical explanation: lifting one veto in exchange for lifting another opposite one.

Egypt had placed newly-appointed Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on its black list for insulting the person of President Mubarak in addition to threatening to blow up the Aswan Dam. An Egyptian official had announced that Lieberman will not set foot on Egyptian soil. Only a public apology would allow for a reconsideration. It was noted that when Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman visited the new Israeli Prime Minister, he avoided meeting the new Foreign Minister at his office, seeing him elsewhere with no media presence or coverage. When Mr. Netanyahu made a brief visit to President Mubarak in Sharm El-Sheikh one likely issue would have been granting Mr. Lieberman the opportunity to display his goodwill towards Egypt. A note from the Ministry directly under his supervision changing course by supporting President Mubarak's personal choice for UNESCO could have a soothing effect.

That deal will certainly improve Egypt-Israeli relations, but is unlikely to advance the chances of Mr. Husni taking over UNESCO. After all, those who opposed him are unlikely to be persuaded by the circular of Avigdor Lieberman. In fact, a recent article in Le Monde by the Egyptian candidate in which he tried to explain away his earlier remarks has backfired: it infuriated pro-Israelis while prompting a wide number of Arab intellectuals to think the man was a blatant "arriviste" who will do anything to get there. It is a pity that Egypt, the major Arab country with one of the oldest world cultures, should risk losing such a unique opportunity.

There is talk of a Russian candidate, deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko, but U.N. Specialized Agencies normally avoid electing an official from the U.S. or Russia and the candidature seems more like a personal initiative rather than a national diplomatic campaign. Equally, the Bulgarian ambassador has difficulty even within the Eastern European group. A charming candidate is Yvonne Abdel Baqi, a beautiful Lebanese/Ecuadorian artist who serves as her adopted country's ambassador to Washington. Our dear Yvonne has our very best wishes but is more likely to gain personal friends and admirers than to assemble required votes. Also, to be frank, she does not have the required management experience to run a huge operation like UNESCO.

Therefore, there seems to be one viable formidable candidate with the political judgment, management ability, cultural educational qualifications, personal stature, and inter-governmental experience and international visibility: Benita Ferraro-Waldner.