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Israel to join US in quitting Unesco

Israel has said it will join the US in pulling out of the UN’s cultural organisation Unesco, after US officials cited “anti-Israel bias”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US decision as “brave and moral”, a statement said.

The agency is known for designating world heritage sites such as Syria’s Palmyra and the US Grand Canyon.

Unesco head Irina Bokova earlier called the US withdrawal a matter of “profound regret”.

She admitted, however, that “politicisation” had “taken its toll” on the organisation in recent years.

The withdrawal represented a loss to the “UN family” and to multilateralism, Ms Bokova added.

The US withdrawal will become effective at the end of December 2018 – until then, the US will remain a full member. The US will establish an observer mission at the Paris-based organisation to replace its representation, the state department said.

‘An easy target’

By Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent

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Unesco is an easy target for US President Donald Trump – it is a multilateral body with educational and developmental goals like promoting sex education, literacy and equality for women.

The US withdrawal will be seen by many as a manifestation of Mr Trump’s “America First” approach and his across-the-board hostility to multilateral organisations; the irony being that Unesco is part of the international architecture that the US helped to establish in the wake of World War Two.

But it is the organisation’s perceived anti-Israel bias that is the fundamental issue here. It has condemned Israel in the past for its activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and earlier this year it designated the old city of Hebron a Palestinian World Heritage Site – a step Israel insisted denied centuries of Jewish history there, not least the Tomb of the Patriarchs that dates back to biblical times.

Hours after the US announced its withdrawal, the Israelis joined in, with Prime Minister Netanyahu saying he had instructed his foreign ministry to begin preparations to leave.

As well as accusing Unesco of bias, the US state department said it was also concerned about mounting financial arrears at the agency and said it should be reformed.

The decision follows a string of Unesco decisions that have drawn criticism from the US and Israel.

In 2011 the US cut its funding to the agency – slashing its budget by 22% – in protest at its decision to grant full membership to the Palestinians.

And last year, Israel suspended co-operation with Unesco after the agency adopted a controversial resolution which made no reference to Jewish ties to a key holy site in Jerusalem.

The resolution also criticised Israel’s activities at holy places in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

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Then earlier this year, Mr Netanyahu condemned Unesco for declaring the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank a Palestinian World Heritage site.

He accused Unesco of ignoring Judaism’s ancient connection to the city, which includes the crypt where its matriarchs and patriarchs are buried.

Unesco timeline

The Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali
Image captionThe Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, among more than 1,000 sites on the World Heritage list

November 1945: Unesco founded by 37 countries in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, its purpose “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture”.

1974: Congress suspends US contribution after Unesco criticises Israel and recognises the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) – but later rejoins.

1984: Under President Ronald Reagan, US withdraws from Unesco, saying the agency is politically leftwing and financially irresponsible.

1985: UK withdraws, rejoining under change of government in 1997.

2003: US rejoins under George W Bush.

2011: US withdraws funding in protest at Palestinian membership of UN; arrears begin to accumulate.

2017: US announces it will withdraw entirely; Israel says it will follow suit.

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The US withdrawal is also motivated by a desire to stop accruing arrears to the agency, Foreign Policy magazine reported. The US cut funding of more than $80m (£60m) of funding to the agency amid the furore over Palestinian membership six years ago, but continues to be charged, and now owes more than $500m, the magazine said.

Mr Trump has criticised what he sees as a disproportionate contribution by the US to UN institutions. The US funds 22% of the UN’s regular budget and 28% of UN peacekeeping.

The decision to pull out of Unesco was applauded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), which said that for years, the agency had “betrayed its original laudatory mission… and chosen instead to unfairly target the Middle East’s lone democracy, Israel”.

The US was a founding member of Unesco. The Reagan administration withdrew from the organisation in 1984 – accusing the agency of corruption and an ideological bias towards the then Soviet Union – but the US rejoined in 2002.

Unesco is in the process of choosing a new leader, with Qatari and French former ministers Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and Audrey Azoulay neck-and-neck in the contest to replace Ms Bokova.


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