Israel to formally announce intent to leave UNESCO

Israel to formally announce intent to leave UNESCO

But Jewish state will tell new leader Audrey Azoulay it could reconsider the move in 2018 if organization changes its attitude towards Israel

French Jews hold Israeli flags as they take part at a demonstration against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)
French Jews hold Israeli flags as they take part at a demonstration against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Israel’s envoy to UNESCO to submit a formal letter announcing Israel’s intent to leave the cultural organization.

Carmel Shama-Hacohen will present the letter to UNESCO’s new leader Audrey Azoulay after the Christmas holiday. Israel will officially depart the UN cultural organization at the end of 2018, in accordance with its rules.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the decision was based on the organization’s “attempts to disconnect Jewish history from the land of Israel.”

However, the withdrawal will contain a provision noting that Israel will walk back the decision should UNESCO conduct reforms and change its attitude towards Israel before the end of next year, a senior Israeli official told Channel 10 news Friday.

The decision is said to follow months of internal deliberations in the Israeli government on whether to follow through on Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel would begin preparations to withdraw from UNESCO.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly government meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 17, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu announced the move in October after the US said it was quitting the organization, citing its “anti-Israel bias” alongside financial considerations.

Despite this, Channel 10 reported that the decision was not finalized until recent days, and that Israeli officials held meetings with Azoulay as well as with US State Department officials as they weighed options.

Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen, right, argues with a Palestinian diplomat during the agency’s General Conference in Paris, November 2017 (courtesy)

Shama-Hacohen said Friday that UNESCO “has broken records of hypocrisy, incitement and lies against Israel and the Jewish people, while polluting its noble core principles with politicization and diplomatic terrorism that sometimes bordered on anti-Semitism.”

The envoy said Israel and the Jewish people “should have been the first to contribute to the organization and the last to leave it, but in the theater of the absurd of UNESCO, nations who have nothing to do with science, education and culture have bankrupted this important organization.”

Azoulay has acknowledged difficulties in the Paris-based organization that has been rocked by US funding cuts since 2011 over the admission of Palestine as a member and a series of anti-Israel resolutions.

But the 45-year-old former French culture minister, who has already urged the US and Israel not to withdraw from UNESCO, told The Associated Press in October that the Trump administration’s announced plan to pull out of the agency was not tenable in the long term.

“I obviously regret their departure … but this ’empty chair politics’ is not sustainable because the United States is also affected by everything that UNESCO does,” she said, speaking at the agency’s Paris headquarters.

Former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay looks on at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on November 10, 2017 after UNESCO member states approved her nomination to head of the cultural agency. (AFP/Eric Feferberg)

The UN’s educational, scientific and cultural agency is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, but it also works to fight violent extremism, improve education for girls, promote Holocaust understanding, defend media freedoms and encourage science on climate change.

Israel has been infuriated by resolutions that ignore and diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and have named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.

There have been hopes that Azoulay, the organization’s first Jewish chief who is also of Moroccan descent, would be able to quell the political tempest inside the organization that was created following World War II to promote peace.

AP contributed to this report.

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