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Israel tells Biden administration it won’t oppose US returning to UNESCO — report

Both countries left United Nations cultural organization in 2019 due to alleged anti-Israel bias; Washington is now looking to counter Beijing’s influence in agency, Axios reports

A general view of UNESCO prior to the opening of General Conference in Paris, France, November 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Benjamin Girette, file)
A general view of UNESCO prior to the opening of General Conference in Paris, France, November 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Benjamin Girette, file)

Israel has told the US State Department that it will not oppose the US returning to the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), according to a Wednesday report.

Israel and the US left the organization during the Trump administration in 2019, citing alleged anti-Israeli bias in the UN agency.

The Biden administration asked Israel to not oppose its return to UNESCO, where the US is looking to counter China’s growing influence, the Axios news site reported, citing US and Israeli sources.

Israel’s non-opposition will help the Biden administration win congressional support for the move. Congress needs to approve allocating over $500 million in debts to UNESCO for the US to return as a full member, the report said.

The Obama administration stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 when Palestine became a member because of laws banning US funding of any international organization that recognizes Palestinian statehood in the absence of a peace agreement with Israel.

The agency’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay, has told Israel she will prevent anti-Israel bias and has reassured US lawmakers about the move, the report said.

Last year, Axios reported that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was considering bringing Israel back into the agency as well.

Lapid argued that Israel’s withdrawal from the agency did not help resolve the issue of anti-Israel bias, and instead lessened Jerusalem’s foreign policy influence, the report said.

The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, urged Lapid to rejoin the agency.

Last year, UNESCO re-elected Azoulay as its director-general for a second term, with the former French culture minister hailing a new confidence and unity in the organization. She won her reelection with an overwhelming majority of votes from the agency.

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

She has since focused on restoring confidence in UNESCO, seeking to woo Israel and the US back into the organization.

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.

In October 2017, mere days after the US administration announced its withdrawal from UNESCO due to, among other things, its alleged obsession with Israel, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he was following the US lead.

The decision went into effect at the beginning of 2019.

Jerusalem and Washington ignored strenuous efforts by Azoulay to get both countries to reconsider, including by brokering compromises that saw anti-Israel resolutions delayed or softened.

Israel joined UNESCO on September 16, 1949, and is home to six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Masada, the Old City of Acre, the Bahai Temples in Haifa and the “White City” of Tel Aviv. These sites remain on the list.

The United States 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 before leaving again under the Trump administration.

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