Israel has said it will join the US in pulling out of the UN’s cultural organisation Unesco after US officials cited “anti-Israel bias”. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US decision as “brave and moral”, a statement said, BBC reported on Thursday. The agency is known for designating world heritage sites such as Syria’s Palmyra and the US Grand Canyon. Unesco head Irina Bokova earlier called the US withdrawal a matter of “profound regret”. The US withdrawal will become effective at the end of December 2018 — until then, the US will remain a full member. The US will establish an observer mission at the Paris-based organisation to replace its representation, the state department said.
Netanyahu tweeted he had instructed his foreign ministry to “prepare Israel’s withdrawal… in parallel with the US”. Unesco is an easy target for US President Donald Trump — it is a multilateral body with educational and developmental goals like promoting sex education, literacy and equality for women. The US withdrawal will be seen by many as a manifestation of Trump’s “America First” approach and his across-the-board hostility to multilateral organisations; the irony being that Unesco is part of the international architecture that the US helped to establish in the wake of World War Two.
But it is the organisation’s perceived anti-Israel bias that is the fundamental issue here. It has condemned Israel in the past for its activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and earlier this year it designated the old city of Hebron a Palestinian World Heritage Site – a step Israel insisted denied centuries of Jewish history there, not least the Tomb of the Patriarchs that dates back to biblical times. The decision follows a string of Unesco decisions that have drawn criticism from the US and Israel. In 2011, the US 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 criticised Israel’s activities at holy places in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Then earlier this year, 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.