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US and Israel formally quit Unesco

Donald Trump questioned the effectiveness of the United Nations, saying it's just a club for people to "have a good time"
Thomas Adamson

THE US and Israel left the UN's educational, scientific and cultural agency at the stroke of midnight, the culmination of a process triggered more than a year ago amid concerns that the organisation fosters anti-Israel bias.

The withdrawal is mainly procedural yet serves a new blow to Unesco, co-founded by the US after the Second World War to foster peace.

Donald Trump's administration filed its notice to withdraw in October 2017 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit.

The Paris-based organisation has been denounced by its critics as a crucible for anti-Israel bias: condemned for criticising Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem, naming ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites, and granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.

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

The withdrawals will not greatly affect Unesco financially, since it has been dealing with a reduction in funding since 2011 when Israel and the US stopped paying dues after Palestine was voted in as a member state.

Since then officials estimate that the US – which accounted for around 22 per cent of the total budget – has accrued US $600 million in unpaid dues, which was one of the reasons for president Trump's decision to withdraw. Israel owes an estimated $10 million.

Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay took up her post just after Mr Trump announced the pullout.

Ms Azoulay, who has 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.

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 quit.

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.

The US State Department could not comment because of the government shutdown.

Earlier, the department told Unesco officials that 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 US could potentially seek that status during Unesco executive board meetings in April.

The US has pulled out of Unesco before. Ronald Reagan's administration did so in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The US rejoined in 2003.

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