U.S. quits Unesco citing ‘anti-Israel bias’

PARIS – Israel has said it will join the United States in pulling out of the United Nations’ cultural organization Unesco, after U.S. officials cited “anti-Israel bias”.

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

The U.N. agency is known for designating world heritage sites such as Syria’s Palmyra and the U.S. Grand Canyon. Unesco head Irina Bokova earlier called the US withdrawal a matter of “profound regret”.

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

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted he had instructed his foreign ministry to “prepare Israel’s withdrawal… in parallel with the United States”.

The decision follows a string of Unesco resolutions that have drawn criticism from the U.S. and Israel. In 2011 the U.S. cut its funding to the agency 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 criticized Israel’s activities at holy places in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

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 chief Ms. Bokova said the withdrawal represented a loss to the “U.N. family” and to multilateralism in general. But she admitted that “politicization” had “taken its toll” on the organization in recent years.

Ms. Bokova told the New York Times that she had informed members of Congress repeatedly that immediate payment of U.S. arrears to Unesco was not an issue, and that American re-engagement in the organization was the priority. But she questioned the timing of the announcement, coming as Unesco chooses a new leader.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he “deeply regretted” the U.S. decision but that the U.N. would continue to “interact with the United States very productively on a range of issues through a range of organizations”.