After U.S., Netanyahu Orders Diplomats to Start Preparing for Israel's Departure From UNESCO

Netanyahu welcomes Trump's decision to withdraw from UNESCO as 'brave and moral decision', saying: 'UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. Richard Drew/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed the Foreign Ministry to lay the ground work for Israel's withdrawal from UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural and educational agency, the Prime Minister's Office said, following a similar announcement by the U.S., that said it was leaving the organization due to its anti-Israel bias.

Netanyahu welcomed Trump's decision to withdraw from UNESCO. "This is a brave and moral decision, because UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd. Instead of preserving history, it distorts it," he said.

>> Six key moments in Israel's tumultuous relationship with UNESCO <<

Contrary to the American decision to leave UNESCO, the Israeli response was more cautious and did not include a clear message of its intention to leave the agency.

A senior Israeli official explained that the door remains open on Israel remaining in UNESCO, saying that withdrawal process from the organization is not immediate, and involves a process of at least a year. In the case of the U.S., the withdrawal process will take until December 2018. "If the United States changes its mind about UNESCO within another year and two months because of a change in the organization's behavior following the election of a new director general, Israel may eventually decide not to withdraw," the senior official said.

Defense Minister Leiberman also praised the U.S. decision, saying that it was an "important step in the right direction by our biggest ally towards an anti-Semitic and politically biased organization which has turned lies into a common practice and has lost its way."

The U.S. State Department said in a statement on Thursday that "this decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO."

The U.S. would seek to "remain engaged ...as a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise," they said.

In response, UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said in a statement "I wish to express profound regret at the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from UNESCO," said UNESCO director general Irina Bokova in a statement. 

UNESCO was the first UN body to admit the Palestinians as a full member in 2011, though Israel has long charged it has held an anti-Israel stance. Israel and the United States waged intensive diplomatic efforts to recruit UNESCO member states to vote down controversial measures.