Two weeks on, Israel yet to publicly comment on US decision

Smotrich said urging Netanyahu to oppose US return to ‘history-distorting’ UNESCO

Finance minister reportedly argues Washington’s move is based on consent of previous Israeli government, ‘does not reconcile in any way’ with current leadership’s policies

File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)
File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has urged the government to urgently intervene and formally object to the US intention to resume its membership in the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a report said Monday.

A letter Smotrich sent Sunday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reported by the Israel Hayom daily, claims that Washington is relying on the previous Israeli government’s approval for the move, and argues that Jerusalem must take a public stand against the return of the US to the “history-distorting organization.”

Former president Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the US from UNESCO in 2017, citing financial considerations, the need for reform and the organization’s “continuing anti-Israel bias.”

Israel, which pulled funding from UNESCO in 2011 and left the organization in 2019, had been aware ahead of time of the US intention to rejoin the organization and indicated to Washington that it would not oppose its efforts, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in April.

In his reported letter Sunday to Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Smotrich asked them to “announce the Israeli government’s position objecting to the US renewal of its membership in UNESCO.” The far-right minister added: “Alternatively, such an agreement can be conditioned on a demand that UNESCO revoke the Palestinian Authority’s membership in the organization.”

The government has thus far declined to publicly comment on Washington’s planned move. The Walla news site reported that after the step was announced earlier this month, Netanyahu told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he hadn’t yet formulated a position on the matter and needed to “study the issue.”

A picture taken on October 12, 2017, shows the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris. (AFP PHOTO / JACQUES DEMARTHON)

Israel was particularly angered by UNESCO 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 biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Israel said the Hebron resolution — which refers to the city as “Islamic” — denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there.

The US withdrawal under Trump, which went into effect in late 2018, came seven years after the administration of Barack Obama suspended funding to UNESCO after the Palestinians were admitted as members. The United States had been paying about 22 percent, or $80 million, of the Paris-based agency’s annual budget until then.

The US decision to rejoin has reportedly been largely motivated by a desire to counter China’s growing influence within UNESCO. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in April that the United States had been harmed by its absence from UNESCO, pointing to its role in education and the emerging field of artificial intelligence.

The moves to rejoin UNESCO are taking place now so that the US can run for a seat on the body’s executive board in the upcoming November elections, Axios reported earlier this month.

The US has racked up about $500 million in unpaid dues to UNESCO, which it will have to pay to resume full membership rights. Congress approved the sum in December.

Israel too considered rejoining under the previous government headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which included right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties along with an Islamist partt.

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

Smotrich’s letter said Trump had left UNESCO due to the latter’s “hostility toward Israel, rewriting of history and denial of the Jewish nation’s deep historic connection to the Land of Israel and to holy places like the Tomb of the Patriarchs.”

“The US intention to return to the organization was recently reported, likely based on the previous left-wing government’s notification to the State Department of its consent,” Smotrich wrote.

Smotrich said Israel’s consent was a “central part” of the US decision, arguing that Jerusalem could lobby Republicans to block Congress from approving the funding for UNESCO until it kicks out the Palestinian Authority.

“It is obvious that an Israeli backing for a US return to the history-distorting organization does not reconcile in any way with the Zionist and national policies of the right-wing government,” Smotrich concluded, according to Israel Hayom.

The US previously withdrew from UNESCO under the Reagan administration 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 Trump.

Lazar Berman and agencies contributed to this report. 

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