Hours after the US’s dramatic decision to withdraw from UNESCO, citing anti-Israel bias, Israel stated that it also planned to leave the education, scientific and cultural body.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night directed the Foreign Ministry to “prepare Israel’s withdrawal from the organization in parallel with the US.”
Netanyahu, in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, called the American move a “brave and moral decision, because UNESCO has become the theater of the absurd and because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO
“The United States indicated to the director-general its desire to remain engaged with UNESCO as a nonmember observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.”
Nauert, later speaking with reporters, said that Foggy Bottom gave a “long,” non-partisan look at whether to remain within UNESCO over the course of several administrations.
She noted that the US owes money to the UN body and that state conducted a “cost-benefit analysis” on paying up.
“The question is, do we want to pay that money, and do we want to pay more money going forward when there’s actually a law that says that any UN entity that accepts Palestinians as a member state cannot get US funding?” Nauert asked.
She said that the recent race for UNESCO leadership was unrelated to the US’ “long, deliberative process” on whether to withdraw.
“Let me just remind you that Bashar Assad of Syria was one of the people on the human rights committee of UNESCO,” Nauert continued.
“Does that make any sense to you?” Reform within the organization, she said, might cause the Trump administration to revisit their decision.
Trump administration officials, such as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, have warned for weeks that pulling out would be a possibility if the body fails to reform.
The US decision comes as Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, who has been accused of antisemitism by Jewish and Israeli groups, may be poised to become the next UNESCO director-general.
Kawari has been the lead candidate in four rounds of secret ballot voting. On Thursday he received 22 of the 30 votes needed to replace outgoing director-general Irina Bokova. French-Jewish diplomat Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian human rights advocate Moushira Khattab are tied for second place with 18 votes. A special secret ballot vote will be held on Friday afternoon to break the deadlock between the two women.
Diplomatic sources speculated that news of the US withdrawal, which has been in the works for weeks, could strengthen the standing of the two alternative candidates and weaken Kawari’s campaign.
One diplomatic source explained the rather peculiar wording of the Prime Minister’s Office statement, that the premier had directed the Foreign Ministry to prepare for the withdrawal from the organization in parallel with the US, as a way to retain some wiggle room in case a new leader will change the direction of UNESCO and the US will decide to remain a full member.
The source emphasized that the US decision does not come into effect until the end of December 2018, leaving ample time for the organization to change direction.
Kawari’s initial success in the director-general race is just the latest in a long list of Israeli concerns with regard to UNESCO.
UNESCO’s Executive Board in 2016 passed two resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and one in 2017 that disavowed Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem.
Over the summer, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee declared the Cave of the Patriarchs and Hebron’s Old City as endangered Palestinian sites.
Netanyahu blasted UNESCO during his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, holding the organization up as an example of the absurdities at the UN when it comes to Israel. During that speech, Netanyahu declared that the organization’s decision to declare the Tomb of the Patriarchs a Palestinian World Heritage Site was “worse than fake news, that’s fake history.”
In 2011, UNESCO became the first United Nations body to recognize Palestine as a member state. To protest the vote, both Israel and the US stopped their funding to the organization and in 2014 lost their voting rights.
But the US and Israel still retain other privileges as member states, which they will lose should they leave the organization.
In an unusual move on Wednesday, the 58-member Executive Board agreed to delay by half a year two anti-Israel resolutions. Typically it passes such texts at its biannual meetings.
Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, Carmel Shama- Hacohen, told the board he hoped that the delay was part of a “wind of change” toward Israel and was not tied to the race for director-general.
“We also hope that this change is a not a result of a tactical maneuver influenced by the campaign of a future director-general, but [that it is] a change that will end the anti-Israeli rituals that this committee is used to, a change that will end the politicization that harm this organization.”