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JED­DAH: The US on Thurs­day an­nounced that it is pulling out of UNESCO be­cause of what Wash­ing­ton sees as its anti-Is­rael bias and a need for “fun­da­men­tal re­form” of the UN cul­tural agency.

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

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, fol­low­ing the US de­ci­sion, 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.”

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

The out­go­ing UNESCO chief 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.

“Af­ter re­ceiv­ing of­fi­cial no­ti­fi­ca­tion by the United States Sec­re­tary of State, Mr. Rex Tiller­son, as UNESCO di­rec­tor gen­eral, I wish to ex­press pro­found re­gret at the de­ci­sion of the United States of Amer­ica to with­draw from UNESCO,” Irina Bokova, di­rec­tor gen­eral of UNESCO, said in a state­ment sent to Arab News.

“Uni­ver­sal­ity is crit­i­cal to UNESCO’s mis­sion to strengthen in­ter­na­tional peace and se­cu­rity in the face of ha­tred and vi­o­lence, to de­fend hu­man rights and dig­nity,” Bokova added.

The US stopped fund­ing UNESCO af­ter it voted to in­clude Pales­tine as a mem­ber in 2011, but the State Depart­ment has main­tained a UNESCO of­fice and sought to weigh on pol­icy be­hind the scenes. The US now owes about $550 mil­lion in back pay­ments.

In a state­ment, the US State Depart­ment said the de­ci­sion will take ef­fect Dec. 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.”

Sev­eral di­plo­mats who were to have been posted to the mis­sion 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.

Bokova said in 2011, when pay­ment of mem­ber­ship con­tri­bu­tions was sus­pended at the 36th ses­sion of the UNESCO Gen­eral Con­fer­ence, “I said I was con­vinced UNESCO had never mat­tered so much for the United States, or the United States for UNESCO.”

She said: “At the time when con­flicts con­tinue to tear apart so­ci­eties across the world, it is deeply re­gret­table for the United States to with­draw from the United Na­tions agency pro­mot­ing ed­u­ca­tion for peace and pro­tect­ing cul­ture un­der at­tack.”

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