U.S. says it will leave U.N. cultural agency
Cites anti-israel bias; Netanyahu hails move
PARIS — 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 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 was unexpected. The Paris-based agency’s executive board is choosing a new chief — with Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-kawari leading the heated election heading into Friday’s final vote.
Outgoing Director-general Irina Bokova expressed “profound regret” at the U.S. decision and tried to defend UNESCO’S reputation. The organization is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, but it also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust’s horrors and defend media freedom.
Bokova called the planned departure a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism. The U.S. and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now with “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism,” she said.
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.”
Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel also plans to withdraw from the agency, saying it had become a “theater 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 named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, praised Washington’s move as heralding “a new day at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”
U.S. officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries.