U.S., IS­RAEL plan to exit from UNESCO.

Coun­tries claim bias, cit­ing agency’s sup­port of Pales­tini­ans

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - MATTHEW LEE AND THOMAS ADAM­SON In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Aron Heller and An­gela Charlton of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

PARIS — The United States an­nounced Thurs­day that it is pulling out of the U.N.’s ed­u­ca­tional, sci­en­tific and cul­tural agency in part be­cause of what Wash­ing­ton sees as its anti-Is­rael bias.

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

While Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s 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 in the midst of choos­ing a new chief — with Qatar’s Ha­mad bin Ab­du­laziz al-Kawari lead­ing the heated elec­tion head­ing into to­day’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 also works to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion for girls, pro­mote un­der­stand­ing of the Holo­caust’s hor­rors, and to de­fend me­dia free­dom.

Bokova called the U.S.’ 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 Pales­tini­ans as full mem­bers in 2011, but the State Depart­ment has main­tained a UNESCO of­fice and sought to weigh in on pol­icy be­hind the scenes. The U.S., which con­trib­uted about 22 per­cent of UNESCO’s bud­get un­til 2011, 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 an­gered by res­o­lu­tions that di­min­ish its his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion to the Holy Land by nam­ing 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 U.N., where there is a price to pay for dis­crim­i­na­tion against Is­rael.”

“The United States stands by Is­rael and is a true leader for change at the U.N.,” Danon said. “The al­liance between our two coun­tries is stronger than ever.”

U.S. of­fi­cials said Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son made the de­ci­sion and it was not dis­cussed with other coun­tries. The of­fi­cials were not au­tho­rized to be pub­licly named dis­cussing the is­sue.

Nikki Ha­ley, U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, called UNESCO’s July des­ig­na­tion of He­bron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Pa­tri­archs as Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory the lat­est of many “fool­ish ac­tions” that had made the agency “a chronic em­bar­rass­ment.”

Ha­ley also crit­i­cized UNESCO for “keep­ing Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar As­sad on a UNESCO hu­man-rights com­mit­tee even af­ter his mur­der­ous crack­down on peace­ful pro­test­ers.”

The United States has pulled out of UNESCO be­fore. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion did in 1984 be­cause it viewed the agency as mis­man­aged, cor­rupt and used to ad­vance Soviet in­ter­ests. The U.S. re­joined in 2003, say­ing the agency could help in the fight against ter­ror­ism.

The State Depart­ment in­formed Bokova it in­tends to stay en­gaged at UNESCO as a non­mem­ber “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,” Charge d’Af­faires Chris He­gadorn, the rank­ing U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tive to UNESCO, said. “Ide­ally, it steers it in a way that U.S. in­ter­ests and UNESCO’s man­date will con­verge.”

UNESCO’s 58-mem­ber ex­ec­u­tive board plans to select Bokova’s suc­ces­sor from among three fi­nal­ists re­main­ing from the field of seven can­di­dates un­der con­sid­er­a­tion at the be­gin­ning of the week.

Along with al-Kawari, Qatar’s for­mer cul­ture min­is­ter, the fi­nal­ists are Au­drey Azoulay, a for­mer cul­ture min­is­ter in France, and for­mer Egyp­tian govern­ment min­is­ter Moushira Khat­tab. The board’s pick then goes to the full UNESCO gen­eral as­sem­bly next month for fi­nal ap­proval.

AP/MASHA MACPHER­SON

Chris He­gadorn, U.S. en­voy to UNESCO, said Thurs­day in Paris that the U.S. hopes that in the fu­ture the or­ga­ni­za­tion moves “in way that U.S. in­ter­ests and UNESCO’s man­date will con­verge.”

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