Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen delivered Israel’s official letter of resignation from the organization, in line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision. Israel thus joined the United States, which announced its resignation from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization in October due to both its “continuing anti-Israel bias” and America’s arrears of debt to the organization.
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Under the organization’s bylaws, both countries’ resignations will take effect in another year.
UNESCO’s new director-general, Audrey Azoulay, said in a statement that she regrets Israel’s departure “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.”
Netanyahu decided on Israel’s withdrawal after much discussion and hesitation, mainly out of a belief that Israel couldn’t leave the United States alone at the front. But the resignation doesn’t bar Israel from seeking observer status at the organization, which America has also said it might do.
Shama-Hacohen hinted at this when he said that Israel “hasn’t slammed the door,” but is “inviting the organization’s new leadership to stop being afraid of the gang that has taken it over and promote a thorough reform that won’t enable cynical, politicized use of the organization.”
In June, UNESCO infuriated Israel by deciding that Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs were Palestinian heritage sites. Twelve countries supported the decision, three opposed it and six abstained. Netanyahu said at the time that this was “another delusional decision by UNESCO ... Who is buried there? Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. Our patriarchs and matriarchs.”
In October, after the U.S. announced its planned departure from the organization, Haaretz reported that Israel was surprised by the decision. Both Israeli and American officials involved in the issue said at the time that there had been no bilateral discussion of the matter in the days before the announcement and that the Trump Administration gave Israel no advance warning. They said the issue did come up during Haley’s visit to Israel in June, but the Americans did not inform Israel of the final decision.
After America announced its withdrawal, Netanyahu ordered the Foreign Ministry to begin preparing for Israel’s own withdrawal from the organization.