Israel not returning to UNESCO now, FM director-general says

Israel in the last decade has had a tumultuous relationship with UNESCO, which was the first UN body to accept Palestine as a member state in 2011. 

A general view of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel is not returning to UNESCO at this time, even though the US is weighing such a move, Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz told Israel Radio on Sunday.

Israel over the last decade has had a tumultuous relationship with UNESCO, which was the first UN body to accept “Palestine” as a member state in 2011.

It did so independently of the UN, whose General Assembly granted the Palestinians de facto recognition of statehood when it upgraded its status from observer mission to that nonmember state in 2012.

Ushpiz referenced UNESCO’s 2011 statehood decision when discussing the matter with Kan Radio, noting that a return to UNESCO could be seen as tacit support for that statehood recognition.

If Israel rejoined UNESCO, it would “influence the way that the international community looks at the PA, and our position is that the PA is not a state,” Usphiz said.

 General view as people display banners and Palestine flags outside the stadium before the match (credit: ACTION IMAGES/VIA REUTERS) General view as people display banners and Palestine flags outside the stadium before the match (credit: ACTION IMAGES/VIA REUTERS)

After the critical UNESCO change in 2011, both Israel and the US stopped paying organization dues and lost their voting rights in 2013. The balance both countries owed UNESCO grew each year, until the Trump administration withdrew from the organization altogether at the start of 2019, with Israel following suit.

The Biden administration would like to reengage with UNESCO and return to the organization as a voting member, a move that could only happen with the approval of the US Congress. A congressional edict prohibits US funding to any UN organization that grants full membership to any group that does not have “internationally recognized attributes” of statehood, such as the PA.

It was this legislation that mandated the Obama administration to halt payment of its UNESCO dues. Congress would have to rescind that legislation for the Biden administration to engage with UNESCO once more.

Israel Hayom reported on Sunday that the Biden administration has pressed Israel to return to UNESCO, as part of its campaign to drum up congressional support for the US to resume engagement.

Ushpiz dismissed the report.

“I do not know of any US pressure on Israel to return to UNESCO,” he told KAN Radio. “I have not heard of such a thing. I do know that the US is thinking about going back to UNESCO. The prime minister or the Prime Minister’s Office said yesterday that it is an issue that was discussed between [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett and [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid. There are issues here that are important to the state of Israel.”

The resumption of UNESCO membership must be viewed within the larger context of Israel’s relationship with the PA, Usphiz explained, and that it can’t be pulled out as a separate discussion item with the US.

Palestinian statehood was just one of Israel’s issues with UNESCO, whose executive board approved a resolution that denied Jewish ties to its holy sites in Jerusalem by speaking solely of the ancient Temple Mount and the Western Wall by their Arabic names of al-Haram al-Sharif and al-Buraq Wall/Plaza, respectively.

The UN World Heritage Committee registered the biblical Tomb of the Patriarchs to the “state of Palestine” when it inscribed it onto its List of World Heritage in Danger. The Tomb also houses the Ibrahimi Mosque, and the UNESCO inscription focused primarily on the site’s Islamic history rather than its original Jewish one.

The Trump administration had accused UNESCO of anti-Israel bias, and had believed that it was best to ignore the organization.

In a conversation with reporters earlier this month, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield defended US engagement with UNESCO, explaining that it was easier to influence the organization from within than from without.

“Since the US withdrawal from UNESCO, we have seen that many of our adversaries have really exploited the vacuum we left to advance their own authoritarian agenda in the organization,” she said. “And we don’t believe that’s in US or Israel’s interest.”