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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press U.S. officials have told the Associated Press that 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.

Friday, October 13, 2017 1:00 am

US, Israel planning to leave UN agency

Associated Press

PARIS – The U.S. 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.

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 is in the midst of a heated election to choose a new chief – with Qatar's Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in the lead as the executive board vote heads into a final ballot today.

The outgoing UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, expressed her “profound regret” at the U.S. decision and tried to defend the reputation of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.

She called the departure a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism, saying the U.S. and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now to better fight “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism.”

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.

Netanyahu said 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.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries. The officials, who were not authorized to be publicly named discussing the issue, said the U.S. was notably angry over UNESCO resolutions denying Jewish connections to holy sites and references to Israel as an occupying power.

Bokova defended her agency's reputation, noting its efforts to support Holocaust education and train teachers to fight anti-Semitism – and saying that the Statue of Liberty is among the many World Heritage sites protected by the U.N. agency. UNESCO also works to improve education for girls in poor countries, help them enter scientific fields, defend media freedom and coordinate world knowledge about climate change, among other activities.

It's not the first time the U.S. has pulled out of UNESCO: Washington did the same thing in the 1980s. The U.S. rejoined it in 2003.