U.S. quits UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational and cultural agency. Israel immediately follows suit


Citing what it described as “anti-Israel bias” and a need for “fundamental reform,” the United States announced Thursday that it would withdraw from the United Nations agency that works to protect cultural and natural heritage sites across the globe.

Israel has apparently followed suit, with media reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had instructed the Foreign Ministry to begin the process of pulling out of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO.

Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the U.N., hailed the development in a tweet Thursday, saying it shows “there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”


The U.S. pullout, part of a “long and deliberative” process that predated the Trump administration, would take effect Dec. 31, 2018, according to Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman.

In 2011, after UNESCO voted to grant full membership to a Palestinian state, the U.S. stopped funding the Paris-based organization.

“This is, in a sense, the end point of a road that we’ve been on for some time, that is an uneasy relationship with UNESCO and especially an uneasy relationship around how it connects to the Israel-Palestine conflict,” said Kal Raustiala, a law professor and director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

“Obviously we’re a huge part of UNESCO’s contributions, and symbolically it’s unfortunate,” Raustiala said. “UNESCO is a politicized organization like any U.N. agency. But I think this feeds the perception that it is especially ideological. It’s not going to derail UNESCO entirely, but it’s meaningful because we are a huge contributor of funds and of legitimacy.”

In a statement, Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s outgoing director-general, expressed “profound regret” over America’s decision to abandon the group, which she framed as an important part of the world’s resistance to the rise of violent extremism and terrorism.

“Universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity,” wrote Bovoka, whose replacement is scheduled to be chosen Friday by the agency’s executive board.

She highlighted the organization’s support of efforts to fight anti-Semitism, improve girls’ education and promote press freedom.

Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a secular political party, called the U.S. move “counterproductive and shameful.”

“Sooner or later they will see Palestine in every U.N. agency,” he told the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera. “Will the U.S. respond to that by withdrawing from the [World Health Organization] or the World Intellectual Property Organization? They will be hurting only themselves.”

That possibility may not be so far-fetched.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted that “Trump foreign policy has found its theme: The Withdrawal Doctrine.”

He cited threats or decisions by the White House to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Paris climate accord, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.

UNESCO, which promotes educational, scientific and cultural collaboration among nations, has designated more than 1,000 cultural, natural and structural wonders, including Britain’s Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal in India, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China.

It is not the first time the U.S. has withdrawn from the organization. President Reagan ditched the group in the 1980s, believing it to be favorable toward the Soviet Union — then a U.S. enemy. The U.S. rejoined in 2003.

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.


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5 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

10 a.m.: This article was updated with Israel’s announcement that it would also withdraw from UNESCO.

This article was originally posted at 5:45 a.m.