U.S., Is­rael to exit UN agency over ‘bias’

Claim UNESCO held anti-Is­rael po­si­tions

The London Free Press - - WORLD - Matthew Lee and thoMas adaM­son

PARIS • The United States an­nounced Thurs­day it is pulling out of the UN’s ed­u­ca­tional, sci­en­tific and cul­tural agency be­cause of what Wash­ing­ton sees as its an­tiIs­rael bias and a need for “fun­da­men­tal re­form” in the agency.

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 tim­ing of the State Depart­ment’s state­ment Thurs­day was un­ex­pected. The Paris­based agency is in the midst of a heated elec­tion to choose a new chief — with Qatar’s Ha­mad bin Ab­du­laziz al-Kawari in the lead as the ex­ec­u­tive board vote heads into a fi­nal bal­lot on Fri­day.

The out­go­ing di­rec­tor-gen­eral, Irina Bokova, ex­pressed her “pro­found re­gret” at the U.S. 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.

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 more than ever now 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 main­tained a UNESCO of­fice and sought to weigh in on pol­icy be­hind the scenes. The U.S. now owes about US$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.”

Ne­tanyahu said Thurs­day that Is­rael also plans to with­draw, say­ing it has be­come a “the­atre of the ab­surd be­cause in­stead of pre­serv­ing his­tory, it dis­torts it.”

Is­rael has been irked by res­o­lu­tions that di­min­ish its his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion to the Holy Land and have in­stead named an­cient Jewish sites as Pales­tinian her­itage sites.

Prais­ing Trump’s de­ci­sion as “brave and moral,” Ne­tanyahu said he has or­dered Is­raeli di­plo­mats to pre­pare for Is­rael’s with­drawal from the or­ga­ni­za­tion in con­cert with the Amer­i­cans.

Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, Danny Danon, also 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.

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. chargé 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 lon­grun­ning 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 UN agency. UNESCO also works to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion for girls in poor coun­tries, help them en­ter sci­en­tific fields, de­fend me­dia free­dom and co-or­di­nate world knowl­edge about cli­mate change, among other ac­tiv­i­ties.

JAC­QUES DEMARTHON / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES

Flags fly in front of the head­quar­ters for UNESCO in Paris. The United States said on Thurs­day that it was pulling out of the ed­u­ca­tional and sci­ence or­ga­ni­za­tion, ac­cus­ing it of “anti-Is­rael bias.”

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