While owing money to the organization is thought to be one reason for the US move, the pretext that the US State Department and ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley cited was the group’s alleged anti-Israel bias. Ironically, two days after the US announcement was made, members of UNESCO elected the first Jewish president in the history of the organization.
The US decision, which will take effect at the end of 2018, marks the third time it has left UNESCO or suspended its membership. The first was at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, when the US complained of Moscow’s influence over the group and its criticism of Israel. The second was in 2011, when the US withdrew in protest of the acceptance of the state of Palestine as a member.
This time the US has played the Israel card again. Haley had condemned UNESCO for adopting a resolution last July that recognized the old city of Hebron as a Palestinian world heritage site and one that was “in danger”; a move that enraged the far-right Israeli government. More recently, the organization’s executive council reiterated its commitment to a 2015 resolution that condemns “Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their holy site, Al Aqsa Mosque” and “firmly deplores the continuous storming” of the mosque compound by “Israeli right-wing extremists and uniformed forces.” The resolutions were proposed jointly by Jordan and Palestine.
The US decision surprised even the Israelis, who were not told of Washington’s intentions. Accordingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the move and ordered his foreign ministry to make preparations for a similar exit.
The contrast between American and Israeli departures from UNESCO is overwhelming. Aside from its financial contributions, the US is a major backer of the organization’s education, gender equality, development, and literacy programs; especially in conflict-ridden areas such as Afghanistan and the African Sahara, where religious extremism has become dominant. Other areas include the promotion of human rights and undercutting the smuggling of cultural treasures. The isolationist stand of the current administration notwithstanding, the US has always been supportive of programs that enshrined equality, coexistence and cultural exchange. The US stands to lose leverage in these areas as it walks away.
On the other hand, Israel’s presence in the organization presented moral and political challenges as well as embarrassments. As an occupation force, Israeli policies defied the basic tenets of UNESCO. The UN organization could not ignore the fact that Israel was on a mission to hijack and then erase Palestinian cultural heritage and turn its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories into a dispute over land and places of worship holy to Muslims and Christians.
It’s sad that America’s decision to withdraw is grounded in an ideological and unapologetic bias toward a state that is guilty of practicing discrimination, adopting racist laws and committing human rights violations against people under occupation.
The UN and other international organizations became the only possible fora for disenfranchised Palestinians to plead their case. The fact of the matter is that US bias in favor of Israel, more so now than at any time before, has blinded American officials from recognizing the legitimate cause of the Palestinian people. The fact that UNESCO members have overwhelmingly embraced the Palestinians and defended their rights put the US and Israel on the wrong side of history.
It is sad that America’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO is grounded in an ideological and unapologetic bias toward a state that is guilty of practicing discrimination, adopting racist laws and committing human rights violations against people under occupation.
Unconditional pro-Israel stands will trigger other confrontations between the US and international bodies. In the absence of a genuine and meaningful peace process that would put an end to decades of unlawful occupation, the Palestinians have nowhere to go but to international bodies. How far is Washington willing to go in punishing such bodies for siding with international law and UN resolutions?
Israel remains the only country that finds itself in brazen defiance of UN Security Council resolutions relating to its occupation of Palestinian territories. It has avoided sanctions because the US has provided it with protection; an approach that has emboldened Israeli leaders and encouraged them to expropriate what remains of Palestinian lands and encroach on their religious sites.
It is disheartening that a great country such as the United States, with its Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, now finds itself outside the community of nations alongside Israel. But its exit from UNESCO can only be seen as a self-inflicted wound.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010