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US takes steps to return to UN cultural body; waiving anti-Palestinian Senate law

A general view of the UNESCO meeting during the 40th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France on 13 November 2019. [Mustafa Yalçın - Anadolu Agency]
A general view of the UNESCO meeting during the 40th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France on 13 November 2019. [Mustafa Yalçın - Anadolu Agency]

The United States is making early moves toward rejoining the UN cultural agency UNESCO four years after former President Donald Trump withdrew the country over accusations of anti-Israel bias, congressional and diplomatic sources said to Reuters.

The United States provided one-fifth of the Paris-based agency's funding, but Trump's predecessor Barack Obama stopped paying in 2011 when Palestine became a full member because it is barred by US law. Washington owed $542 million when it quit.

According to the anti-Palestinian Senate legislation, the United States would be required to withdraw from UNESCO if the Palestinians joined any more UN agencies. Washington would also have to quit those bodies.

To become law, the appropriations bill containing the waiver would have to pass both the Senate and House of Representatives, and there has been no indication from congressional leaders when such a vote might take place.

However, encouraged by President Joe Biden's administration, the Senate Appropriations Committee introduced legislation this week to waive that law if Biden – and appropriate congressional committees – believe rejoining UNESCO would allow Washington to counter Chinese influence or promote other US interests.

"We don't have anything to announce on UNESCO at this time," said a US diplomat.

Israel also withdrew from UNESCO at the same time as the United States. A Western diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Israel was keen to return, but was waiting for Washington to move first.

UNESCO said in a statement that the return of the United States and Israel would be "good news" and sees "real hope" for their return but "the timing and modalities … have yet to be defined."

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, who is set to be elected for a new term next month, travelled to the United States last month. She lobbied Biden's wife, Jill, who has been involved in past UNESCO teaching programmes, as well as senators, said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel's foreign ministry declined to comment when asked about a potential return to UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

It is best known for designating and protecting archaeological and heritage sites, from the Galapagos Islands to the tombs of Timbuktu.

Diplomats said that while Israel and the Palestinians had clashed at UNESCO in the past, both parties were now cooperating under UNESCO mediation, even though Israel is not a member.

Israel and UNESCO

Israel joined UNESCO in 1949, and left in 2019.

Israel had been furious at UNESCO after the UN agency adopted several resolutions asserting Palestinian rights in the cities of Jerusalem and Hebron.

In October 2017, UNESCO decided to place the city of Hebron and the Haram al-Ibrahimi Mosque, which is revered by both Muslims and Jews, on the World Heritage List.

Also in 2017, UNESCO voted in favour of a resolution that denied any connection between Al-Aqsa Mosque and Judaism; Israel relies on such a claim in recognising the Muslim holy site as the "Temple Mount".

In May 2018, UNESCO ruled that Israel is an "occupying power" and condemned illegal Israeli activity in occupied East Jerusalem a month later. Another resolution was adopted by UNESCO in June 2018 that considered Jerusalem's Old City and its walls as among the endangered sites of the world heritage.

In response, Israel and the US have cut funding to UNESCO on multiple occasions, accusing it of "anti-Semitism".

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