The United States announced Thursday it is pulling out of the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and a need for “fundamental reform” in the agency.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu followed up the American decision with a statement praising it and saying that Israel intends to do the same.
“This is a courageous and ethical decision because UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd and instead of preserving history, distorts it.”
It went on to say that “Prime Minister Netanyahu has instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO in parallel with the U.S.”
Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Danny Danon, also hailed Washington’s move as “a new day at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”
“UNESCO has become a battlefield for Israel bashing and has disregarded its true role and purpose,” Danon said.
Last year, Israel suspended cooperation with UNESCO after the agency adopted a resolution regarding Har HaBayis which made no reference to the ancient Jewish connection there.
Earlier in 2017, Netanyahu condemned the agency for declaring the Old City of Chevron a Palestinian World Heritage site, ignoring Me’aras Hamachpelah.
While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the timing of the State Department’s statement was unexpected. The Paris-based agency is in the midst of a heated election to choose a new chief.
The outgoing UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, expressed her “profound regret” at the U.S. decision and tried to defend the reputation of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.
She called the U.S. departure a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism, saying the U.S. and UNESCO matter to each other now more than ever to better fight “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism.”
The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh in on policy behind the scenes. The U.S. now owes about $550 million in back payments.
In a statement, the State Department said the decision will take effect Dec. 31, 2018, and that the U.S. will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited U.S. belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”
U.S. officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries. The officials, who were not authorized to be publicly named discussing the issue, said the U.S. was notably angry over UNESCO resolutions denying Jewish connections to holy sites and references to Israel as an occupying power.
Chris Hegadorn, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires and ranking U.S. representative to UNESCO, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the decision to pull out was linked to “the unfortunate politicization of the mandate of UNESCO, where anti-Israel bias has been a major factor and something the U.S. has been struggling to address.”
Many saw the 2011 UNESCO vote to include Palestine as evidence of long-running, ingrained anti-Israel bias within the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.
UNESCO chief Bokova defended her agency’s reputation, noting its efforts to support Holocaust education and train teachers to fight anti-Semitism — and saying that the Statue of Liberty is among the many World Heritage sites protected by the U.N. agency. UNESCO also works to improve education for girls in poor countries, help them enter scientific fields, defend media freedom and coordinate world knowledge about climate change, among other activities.
It’s not the first time the U.S. has pulled out of UNESCO: Washington did the same thing in the 1980s because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The U.S. rejoined it in 2003.
Hegadorn said the U.S. would remain a force at the cultural agency in the same way as it was from 1984, when the country withdrew under then-President Ronald Reagan.
The U.S. told Bokova it intends to stay engaged as a non-member “observer state” on “non-politicized” issues, including the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.
“We will be carefully watching how the organization and the new director-general steers the agency,” Hegadorn said. “Ideally, it steers it in a way that U.S. interests and UNESCO’s mandate will converge.”
On Friday, UNESCO selected former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay as its new chief, handing her the keys to revive the organization’s fortunes after the United States pulled out.
Azoulay edged Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari after the fifth round of voting and the decision will now be put forward for approval to UNESCO’s 195 members on Nov. 10.
“In this time of crisis we need more than ever to support, strengthen and reform UNESCO and not leave it,” Azoulay told reporters, saying she would modernize the organization.
“If I’m confirmed … the first thing I will do is restore its credibility, restore the faith of its members and its efficiency so it can act.”
Azoulay, who will replace Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who has led the body since 2009, will have to try to restore the relevance of an agency born from the ashes of World War II, but increasingly hobbled by regional rivalries and a lack of money.
The 45-year-old, a former minister under President Francois Hollande, has the political background, and knows the cultural and communications’ sectors well, having dedicated much of her career to them.