Blinken says Israel supports a US return to UNESCO

US secretary of state tells Congress Jerusalem backs effort to rejoin UN cultural agency, which the two nations left in 2019 over anti-Israel bias

File: French Jews hold Israeli flags as they demonstrate against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)
File: French Jews hold Israeli flags as they demonstrate against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Israel, which withdrew from the UN cultural agency UNESCO with the United States over bias in 2019, has no objections to a US return, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

Questioned by lawmakers, Blinken called on Congress to give US President Joe Biden the power to waive a US law that requires an end to US funding to any international organization, such as UNESCO, that recognizes Palestine as a state.

“We believe that having the waiver authority would be important and necessary and I can say with authority that our partners in Israel feel the same way. They would support our rejoining UNESCO,” Blinken told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Blinken said that the United States has been harmed by its absence, pointing to UNESCO’s role in education and the emerging field of artificial intelligence.

“When we’re not at the table shaping that conversation and so actually helping to shape those norms and standards, well, someone else is. And that someone else is probably China,” Blinken said.

The United States paid about 22 percent or $80 million of the Paris-based agency’s budget until 2011 when its admission of a Palestinian state triggered an end to the contributions.

Previous US and Israeli leaders Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu both fully withdrew from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization eight years later.

Israel was angered by decisions that included recognizing the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank, as a Palestinian world heritage site in danger.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is revered as the biblical burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. Israel says the Hebron resolution — which refers to the city as “Islamic” — denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there.

UNESCO’S director-general, Audrey Azoulay, in Paris, France, November 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Advocates for a US return say that the UN body’s current leader, former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay, has successfully addressed charges of bias.

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