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France’s Azoulay re-elected to head UNESCO as it seeks to woo back Israel, US

Jerusalem and Washington left UN cultural agency over accusations of anti-Israel bias; source claims ‘positive signs’ they might return

In this November 10, 2017 picture, UNESCO'S new elected director-general France's Audrey Azoulay attends a press conference at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation headquarters in Paris, France. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
UNESCO director-general France's Audrey Azoulay attends a press conference at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation headquarters in Paris, France, November 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS — The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO on Tuesday re-elected France’s Audrey Azoulay as its director-general for a second mandate, with the former French culture minister hailing a new confidence and unity in the organization.

UNESCO had been riven by divisions when Azoulay took office in 2017 with both Israel and the United States exiting the agency over accusations of anti-Israeli bias.

Unchallenged, Azoulay won her new mandate at UNESCO’s general conference with 155 votes in favor, just nine against and one abstention.

“I see this result as a sign of regained unity within our organization. Over the last four years, we have been able to restore confidence in UNESCO, and in some respects this has also been about restoring UNESCO’s confidence in itself,” she said.

“We regained serenity by reducing the political tensions that stood in our way and by looking for common positions on subjects that were divisive in the past,” she added.

UNESCO, which in 2020-21 received total funding of $1.4 billion from compulsory member contributions and donations, has been at the forefront of high-profile projects such as rebuilding the old city of Mosul in Iraq and schools in the Lebanese capital Beirut damaged by the August 2020 blast.

Azoulay’s greatest challenge for her second four-year term will be seeking to woo Israel and the US back into the organization, which oversees the coveted World Heritage label for humanity’s most cherished sites worldwide.

A source close to Azoulay, who asked not to be named, told AFP in the run-up to the conference that there were “positive signs” that the two countries could be considering a return.

For some, the return of the US would be a welcome balance to the growing importance and influence of China which now makes up over 15 percent of the total compulsory budget contributions.

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