US and Israel officially leave UNESCO claiming 'anti-Israel bias'

US and Israel officially leave UNESCO claiming 'anti-Israel bias'
The United States and Israel have officially quit the UN's heritage agency with a combined total of hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid dues to the organisation.
3 min read
01 January, 2019
UNESCO is best known for its programme to protect cultural sites and traditions [Getty]

The United States and Israel officially pulled out of of the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the stroke of midnight, the culmination of a process triggered more than a year ago amid claims of anti-Israel bias.

The official withdrawal from the body, which was co-founded by the US after World War Two to foster peace, follows prior notice given by the Trump administration and Israel in late 2017.

The Paris-based organisation came under fire from Washington and Tel Aviv after granting Palestine full membership in 2011 and criticising Israel for its occupation of East Jerusalem. Israel has also been angered by the recognition of several historical sites as Palestinian, with Israel claiming them as their own.

Washington has demanded "fundamental reform" in the agency that is best known for its World Heritage programme to protect cultural sites and traditions. UNESCO also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust's horrors, and to defend media freedom.

Under the Trump administration, the UN's relationship with Washington has come under increased strain with US officials, including President Donald Trump, accusing the world body of being unfair towards the US and Israel.

The Trump administration has also cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees.

The withdrawals will not greatly impact UNESCO financially, since it has been dealing with a funding slash ever since 2011 when both Israel and the US stopped paying dues after Palestine was voted in as a member state. Since then officials estimate that the US - which accounted for around 22 percent of the total budget - has accrued $600 million in unpaid dues, which was one of the reasons for Trump's decision to withdraw. Israel owes an estimated $10 million.

Officials say that many of the reasons the US cited for withdrawal do not apply anymore, noting that since then, all 12 texts on the Middle East passed at UNESCO have been consensual among Israel and Arab member states.

In April of this year, Israel's ambassador to UNESCO said the mood was "like a wedding" after member nations signed off on a rare compromise resolution on "Occupied Palestine," and UNESCO diplomats hailed a possible breakthrough on longstanding Israeli-Arab tensions.

The document was still quite critical of Israel, however, and the efforts weren't enough to encourage the US and Israel to reconsider their decision to quit.

Despite withdrawing, the US State Department has said in earlier statements that the US intends to stay engaged at UNESCO as a non-member "observer state" on "non-politicised" issues, including the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.

The US has pulled out of UNESCO before. The Reagan administration did so in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The US rejoined in 2003.