UNESCO chief receives Israel’s withdrawal notice: ‘I regret this deeply’
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UNESCO chief receives Israel’s withdrawal notice: ‘I regret this deeply’

Audrey Azoulay's confirmation of Israeli departure comes after last minute scramble to submit paperwork; Jewish state will leave UN's cultural arm on December 31, 2018

UNESCO head Audrey Azoulay speaks at a press conference following her election on October 13, 2017, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (AFP Photo/Thomas Samson)
UNESCO head Audrey Azoulay speaks at a press conference following her election on October 13, 2017, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (AFP Photo/Thomas Samson)

Israel has formally notified the UN’s culture and education body of its withdrawal from the organization, two months after it announced it would follow the US by walking out over resolutions critical of the Jewish state.

In a statement UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said she had been officially notified on Friday that Israel would leave on December 31, 2018.

“I regret this deeply, as it is my conviction that it is inside UNESCO and not outside it that states can best seek to overcome differences in the organization’s fields of competence,” she said.

Azoulay’s announcement came after Israel scrambled to ensure it wouldn’t be forced to remain in the organization for an extra year due to concerns it wouldn’t be able to file the necessary paperwork on time.

In a statement Thursday, Israel’s envoy to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen said that he had made a last-ditch attempt to submit a formal letter announcing Israel’s intent to leave the organization, showing up at the door of the cultural agency’s Paris offices with a box of chocolates along with the paperwork. But he couldn’t find anyone willing to sign for receipt, as the offices were closed for the year-end holidays.

However, the Israeli notice was able to reach Azoulay in the end.

Israel’s envoy to the UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, attempts to deliver official papers announcing Israels withdrawal from the cultural organization, December 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

A week ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would leave the organization, two months after the US formally announced its own withdrawal — partly due to UNESCO’s anti-Israel bias.

In order to leave at the same time as the US — at the end of 2018 — Israel had to formally hand a letter of intent to Azoulay at least one year ahead of time.

“Today we made an attempt to submit our formal letter of withdrawal, ending the State of Israel’s membership of UNESCO,” Shama-Hacohen said Thursday. “I went there today, along with my assistant, and we first gave the security guards a box of chocolates for the new year and to sweeten the fact that we were disturbing them.”

The envoy said he explained the situation to the guards, but they said they were not permitted to sign for any mail, nor were they allowed to accept any official documentation.

Shama-Hacohen said he was eventually able to enter the organization’s offices, “and we reached a deal with them that would allow us to write on the letter that we had attempted to hand it to them but they had refused.”

Envelope containing official notification of Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO which envoy, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, attempted to deliver to the cultural organization on December 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

He then emailed the letter to the director-general and she agreed that she would view this as an official notification that Israel intended to leave, he said.

Shama-Hacohen pointed out the positive relationship Israel had with Azoulay, who was appointed the organization’s new head in October, and said he hoped that she would succeed in ridding the organization of its political agenda and “turn it back into a professional organization.”

UNESCO 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.

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

Still, the Israeli withdrawal reportedly contains a provision noting that Jerusalem will walk back the decision should UNESCO conduct reforms and change its attitude towards Israel before the end of next year.

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