While largely a procedural move, the U.S. and Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO is another blow to multilateralism.

The U.S. and Israel officially withdrew from UNESCO, the U.N. body that oversees education, science, and culture, starting from January 1, 2019. Both countries accused the international heritage body of having an anti-Israel bias.

The Trump administration first filed their notice to withdraw in October 2017. The move was then soon followed by Israel and Trump’s Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.

The exit, despite being mostly procedural, is considered a big blow to the Paris-based organization which was co-founded by the US after World War II and aimed at pushing for peace.

UNESCO has been slammed for being an anti-Israel institution because it condemns Israel’s occupation in East Jerusalem, declared ancient Jewish shrines as Palestinian-owned and granted full membership to Palestine in 2011; all moves that have angered Israel over the years.

Israel has nine world heritage sites, including Baha’i Holy Places in Haifa, Masada near the Dead Sea and the White City in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem’s Old City is also registered, but not included in the territorial status. Instead, UNESCO added three other sites in the Palestine Autonomy Region.

Reactions

Israel Special Envoy Danny Danon said his country will not be a member in an organization that will act against it. He also accused UNESCO of being manipulated by Israel’s enemies.

“UNESCO is a body that continually rewrites history, including by erasing the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. It is corrupted and manipulated by Israel’s enemies and continually singles out the only Jewish state for condemnation. We are not going to be a member of an organization that deliberately acts against us,” Danon told The Times of Israel, on Monday.

The U.S. State Department has yet to issue a statement on the withdrawal due to the government shutdown. However, previously, the department told UNESCO officials that Washington still intends to be involved in the heritage body as an “observing country” on non-political issues like protection for world heritage sites, efforts to fight for press freedom and any collaborations in science or education.

An American official told the Associated Press that Washington opposed the UNESCO resolution that snubbed the Jewish connection to Tempe Mount and referred to Israel as the “occupying power” in 2016.

It is not the first time the US abandoned UNESCO. The Reagan administration withdrew in 1984 after claiming that the institution was mismanaged, corrupt, and being used to advance Soviet interests. The U.S. rejoined the organization in 2003.

Is UNESCO an anti-Israel body?

UNESCO, which was established on November 4, 1945, was once dubbed as a pro-Israel body in terms of its policies. However, the body has moved more central and some say it is balanced and independent when it comes to making decisions related to the Palestine-Israel issue while others label it anti-Israel.

Worldwide though, there has been waning support for Israel and an increase in support for Palestine since UNESCO was established.

The appointment of Audrey Azoulay as Director-General of UNESCO in 2017 was aimed at addressing accusations of pro-Israel bias. Azoulay is a French politician born to a Moroccan Jewish family.

Along with advocating education for girls and defending press freedom, UNESCO also promotes awareness and understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust where six million Jews were persecuted, tortured and killed by the Nazi regime during World War II.

In November 2018, UNESCO along with the World Jewish Congress launched a website dedicated to Holocaust education and memory. The website is called “Facts about the Holocaust” and provides an array of information about the Holocaust, survivors’ stories and education about the tragedy.

However, these efforts did not mend relations between the U.S. and Israel and UNESCO.

Financially, the withdrawal of the U.S. and Israel from UNESCO will not affect the agency as both countries had already ceased paying dues. When UNESCO became the first U.N. body to recognize Palestine as a full member in 2011, the Barack Obama administration stopped paying annual dues to UNESCO and Israel soon followed.

 

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