U.S., Is­rael leav­ing UNESCO over bias, lack of re­form


PARIS | The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced Thurs­day it is pulling the U.S. 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 im­me­di­ately 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 in the midst of a bruis­ing lead­er­ship bat­tle, 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 also works to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion for girls, pro­mote un­der­stand­ing of the Holo­caust’s hor­rors and de­fend me­dia free­dom.

Ms. Bokova called the U.S.’ planned de­par­ture a loss for “the United Na­tions fam­ily” and for mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism. The U.S., the world body’s largest sin­gle fun­der, and UNESCO mat­ter to each other more than ever now with “the rise of vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism and ter­ror­ism,” she said.

The U.S. un­der Pres­i­dent Obama 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. Wash­ing­ton 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” as a ma­jor rea­son for its with­drawal.

Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion as “brave and moral,” Mr. 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.”

U.S. of­fi­cials said Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. 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.”

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

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

Along with Mr. 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 U.S. and Is­rael both an­nounced they would leave UNESCO over what they claimed jointly is an­itIs­raeli bias, such as the World Her­itage com­mit­tee list­ing the West Bank city of He­bron as pro­tected.

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