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US quits UNESCO due to 'anti-Israel bias', will owe $550 million

(CNTV)    11:00, October 13, 2017

The United States said Thursday it is pulling out of the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural agency UNESCO because of what Washington sees as its "anti-Israel bias" and need for “fundamental reform.” The US will now owe about 550 million US dollars in back payments.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow suit.

While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the announcement by the State Department on Thursday rocked the agency’s Paris headquarters, where a heated election to choose a new chief is underway.

The official statement of withdrawal from the US State Department / US State Department Photo‍

The outgoing UNESCO director-general expressed her “profound regret” at the decision and tried to defend the reputation of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.

The US 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.

In a statement, the State Department said the decision will take effect December 31, 2018, and that the US will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited US belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”

Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel will also withdraw from the agency, saying it had become a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office September 26, 2017. /Reuters Photo‍

He said he has ordered Israeli diplomats to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from the organization in concert with the Americans.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, praised Washington’s move as heralding “a new day at the UN, 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 in a statement. The organization’s absurd and shameful resolutions against Israel have consequences.”

Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon addresses a United Nations Security Council meeting on the Middle East at UN headquarters in New York, January 26, 2016. /Reuters Photo

Several US diplomats who were to have been posted to UNESCO this summer were told that their positions were on hold and advised to seek other jobs. In addition, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains no provision for the possibility that UNESCO funding restrictions might be lifted.

The lack of staffing and funding plans for UNESCO by the US have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of UNESCO by senior US officials, including US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

US officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and that it was not discussed with other countries but was the result of an internal US government deliberation.

The officials, who were not authorized to be publicly named discussing the issue, said the US is notably angry over UNESCO resolutions denying Jewish connections to holy sites and references to Israel as an occupying power.

Chris Hegadorn, the US Charge d’Affaires and ranking US representative to UNESCO, told reporters in an interview 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 US has been struggling to address.”

Chris Hegadorn, deputy permanent delegate of the United States delegation to UNESCO, is seen at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris on October 12. /Reuters Photo

“The accrual of arrears since 2011 since the admission of Palestine as a member state had been mounting,” he added.

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’s outgoing director-general, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, called the US departure a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism. She said the US and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now to better fight “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism.”

She defended UNESCO’s reputation, noting its efforts to support Holocaust education and train teachers to fight anti-Semitism – and that the Statue of Liberty is among the many World Heritage sites protected by the UN agency. UNESCO also works to improve education for girls in poor countries and in scientific fields and to defend media freedom, among other activities.

A general view of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters is seen at dusk in Paris, France, October 12, 2017. /Reuters Photo

UNESCO’s executive board plans to select its choice to succeed Bokova by Friday in a secret ballot.

It’s not the first time the US 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 US rejoined in 2003.

Hegadorn said the US would remain a force at the cultural agency in the same way as it was from 1984 when the country withdrew under President Ronald Reagan.

The US informed Bokova it intends to stay engaged as a non-member "observer state" on “non-politicized” issues, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, talks to journalists at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, France, October 12, 2017. /Reuters Photo

“We will be carefully watching how the organization and the new director-general steers the agency,” Hegadorn said. “Ideally, it steers it in way that US interests and UNESCO’s mandate will converge.” 

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