US said set to rejoin UN cultural agency, 6 years after Trump withdrew from it

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The United States recently notified the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that it will rejoin the cultural body, almost six years after former president Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US membership, citing financial considerations, the need for reform and the organization’s “continuing anti-Israel bias.”

Axios reported on Sunday cited a State Department spokesperson as saying Washington contacted UNESCO privately last week to announce its decision to rejoin, after uneasily eyeing rival China’s growing influence in the agency.

The US withdrawal under Trump, which went into effect in late 2018, came seven years after the Obama administration suspended funding to UNESCO after the Palestinians were admitted as members.

The United States paid about 22 percent or $80 million of the Paris-based agency’s annual budget until then.

Israel joined both US initiatives, suspending funding to UNESCO in 2011, and losing its voting rights alongside the US as a result. Israel also formally withdrew from UNESCO in 2019, some 69 years after it had joined, citing the continued singling out of the Jewish state for criticism and condemnation.

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

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/File)

Jerusalem has indicated to Washington that it would not oppose its efforts to rejoin the organization.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last April that the United States has been harmed by its absence at UNESCO, pointing to its role in education and the emerging field of artificial intelligence.

“When we’re not at the table shaping that conversation and so actually helping to shape those norms and standards, well, someone else is. And that someone else is probably China,” Blinken said.

Israel too considered rejoining under the previous government.

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, as the administration of US President Joe Biden has made it a priority to rejoin “to counter what it sees as the growing influence of the Chinese government on the UN agency’s agenda,” according to Axios.

The legislation gave Biden the power to waive a US law that requires an end to US funding to any UN organization that recognizes Palestine as a state, and includes a snap-back clause that will stop US funding if that happens.

The US wants to rejoin UNESCO and begin paying its back dues now so that it can run for a seat on the bodies executive board in the upcoming November elections, the report said, citing a source briefed on the issue.

It further reported that Richard Verma, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, delivered a letter to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay on June 8, with a proposed plan to rejoin the organization, readmission to the agency’s executive board, and a timeframe for paying back dues.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay speaks during a news conference after a visit to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, March. 6, 2023. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

Azoulay’s office sent a letter on Friday to the ambassadors of all 193 member states calling for a meeting scheduled for Monday, during which she “will provide urgent strategic information,” according to communication seen by Axios. Azoulay further called for a special general conference meeting in July to approve the US’s rejoining plan.

Azoulay, a Jewish former minister of culture in France, was elected to head UNESCO in October 2017, a move that was cautiously welcomed in Israel and the US. She had reportedly fought to get both countries to reconsider their withdrawals, including brokering compromises that saw anti-Israel resolutions delayed or softened.

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.

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