Robert HARNEIS –TDO- (FRANCE)-  The United States and Israel officially left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on January 1st. The leaving process began more than a year ago amid claims of anti-Israel bias.

The withdrawal is mainly procedural, but it is a blow to UNESCO, co-founded by the US after World War II to foster peace. It is part of US President Trump’s wish to be seen as very supportive of Israel for domestic political reasons. It can also be seen as a warning shot to the United Nations Organization more generally.

The US government gave notice that it would withdraw in October 2017. Israel immediately followed suit.

The Paris-based organization has been denounced by its US lead critics notably for criticizing Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, naming ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites and worst of all granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.

The US has demanded ‘fundamental reform’ in the agency that is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions. UNESCO also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust’s horrors, and defend media freedom.

The withdrawals will not greatly impact UNESCO financially, since it has been dealing with funding problems since 2011, when both Israel and the US stopped paying their dues after Palestine was voted in as a member state. Since then, officials estimate that the US, which accounted for around 22 percent of the total budget — has accrued $600 million in unpaid dues. Israel owes an estimated $10 million.

UNESCO Director General, Frenchwoman Audrey Azoulay, took up her post just after Trump announced the pullout. Azoulay, who is of Jewish and Moroccan heritage, has presided over the launch of a Holocaust education website and the UN’s first educational guidelines on fighting anti-Semitism — initiatives that might be seen as responding to US and Israeli concerns.

UNESCO officials say that many of the reasons the US cited for withdrawal do not apply anymore, noting that since then, all 12 texts on the Middle East passed at UNESCO have been consensual among Israel and Arab member states.

In April 2018, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO said the mood was ‘like a wedding’ after member nations signed off on a rare compromise resolution on ‘Occupied Palestine,’ and UNESCO diplomats hailed a possible breakthrough on longstanding Israeli-Arab tensions.

The document was still quite critical of Israel, however, and the efforts were not enough to encourage the US and Israel to reconsider their decision to leave. In addition, it is thought that President Trump was un willing to spend 600 million dollars to bring US contributions up to date.

In recent years, Israel has been infuriated by repeated resolutions that ignore and diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and that have named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites. Archeology is a highly political issue in Israel.

Earlier, the US State Department told UNESCO officials the US intends to stay engaged at UNESCO as a non-member ‘observer state’ on ‘non-politicized’ issues, including the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.

The United States has pulled out of UNESCO before. The Reagan administration did so in 1984 because it claimed the agency was mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The US rejoined in 2003.

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