U.S. pulls out of UNESCO; Is­rael to fol­low

Ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cries per­ceived anti-Is­rael bias at U.N. agency

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION & WORLD - By Matthew Lee and Thomas Adam­son

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 Paris­based 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 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.

Bokova called the United States’ 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 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 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.

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. The Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion did in 1984 be­cause it viewed the agency as mis­man­aged, cor­rupt and used to ad­vance Soviet in­ter­ests. The U.S. re­joined in 2003.

The State De­part­ment in­formed Bokova it in­tends to stay en­gaged at UNESCO as a non­mem­ber “ob­server state” on “non­politi­cized” 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, told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “Ide­ally, it steers it in 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.

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

The United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion logo is pic­tured on the en­trance at UNESCO’s head­quar­ters in Paris. The United States is pulling out of UNESCO af­ter re­peated crit­i­cism of res­o­lu­tions by the U.N. cul­tural agency that Wash­ing­ton sees as anti-Is­rael.

Chris He­gadorn

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