Israel to leave UNESCO alongside US, Netanyahu says


(JTA) — Israel will prepare to leave UNESCO alongside the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement praising President Donald Trump for the pullout announced by the Department of State.

The U.S. announced Thursday that the United States will leave by 2019 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization over its alleged anti-Israel bias and need for reform.

Netanyahu, in a statement, called it“a courageous and ethical decision because UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd and instead of preserving history, distorts it.”

The Israeli leader instructed his foreign ministry to “prepare Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO in parallel with the Unites States,” read the statement.

The Paris-based body, which is responsible for UN efforts to educate and preserve heritage sites worldwide, delighted Palestinians in July when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank an endangered world heritage site. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained that the language of that resolution did not sufficiently acknowledge the religious attachment of Jews to Hebron.

Prior to that resolution UNESCO also passed several resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to Jerusalem, drawing Israeli officials’ fury and criticism by Western countries – including by France, which supported the resolutions during votes.

Six years ago, the United States cut off more than $80 million a year, about 22 percent of its entire budget for UNESCO, in reprisal for its acceptance of Palestine as a member, Foreign Policy reported.

The Obama administration said it had to cut funds because a 1990s-era law prohibits U.S. funding for any U.N. agencies recognizing Palestine as a state. Israel also suspended its funding for UNESCO.

As a result of U.S. funding cuts, it owes more than $500 million to UNESCO, according to Foreign Policy. The decision to withdraw from UNESCO owes partly to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s desire to stop the growing debt.

The U.S. statement about the pullout, which would make it an observer state at the forum instead of a member, cited “the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”

UNESCO’s outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova — a Bulgaria-born stateswomen who has acknowledged the existence of anti-Israel bias in her organization and vowed to block it — called the American announcement “a loss” for her organization, adding she “deeply regrets” the move.

“This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism,” Bokova said in an impassioned 10-minute address that UNESCO filmed and posted online.

In her speech, Bokova offered an overview of the United States’ decades-long partnership with UNESCO, which she said was critical to the UN organization’s mission, serving the United States’ interests and “deep, because it has drawn on shared values.” But she did not fault the U.S. directly for leaving, or address the alleged anti-Israel bias and other problems that Tillerson said prompted the decision.

As the “fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues,” Bokova said. And 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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