U.S. Exit From UNESCO Took Israel by Surprise, Was Uncoordinated

Despite close relations between Israel and Trump administration, incident exposes a grave lack of coordination between the two countries

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions from the press during a meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office October 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump answered a range of questions during the portion of the meeting that was open to the press, including queries on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Israel was surprised by the U.S. decision on Thursday to quit UNESCO. Four senior Israeli and American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no coordination with Israel in the days before the decision was announced and that the Trump administration did not tell Israel beforehand.

The senior Israeli officials said that in recent months the possibility of the United States leaving the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization had come up in talks between Israeli and U.S. diplomats in New York and Paris. They said the issue was also brought up during the June visit to Israel of U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. But the Israeli sources said that at no point did the Americans tell Israel a decision had been made to withdraw.

Despite the generally close relations between Israel and the administration of President Donald Trump, the affair exposed a grave lack of coordination between the two countries.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson walks towards cameras at the State Department October 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. Tillerson had a meeting with Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro at the State Department today.   Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP

Senior officials in Jerusalem confirmed that Israel learned of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to quit UNESCO from a report posted on the website of Foreign Policy very late Wednesday night. In its wake, Israeli diplomats at the embassy in Washington, the UN and at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters asked their American counterparts for clarification. Only late Thursday morning was Israel told that in a few hours the State Department would announce the U.S. departure from UNESCO.

Senior U.S. officials confirmed that Washington was not proactive about informing Israel of its decision. “The deliberative process that led to the decision to withdraw was an internal U.S. government process and was not discussed with any non-USG entities prior to the secretary’s decision,” a senior official said, using an abbreviation for the U.S. government.

In fact, the State Department did not inform Israel even after Tillerson made the decision. The only official to whom Tillerson reported the decision was UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova. Only after the announcement was published in the media did the United States inform its allies, including Israel.

The surprise in Jerusalem, in addition to the fact that the decision was made during the Simhat Torah holiday, was the main reason for Israel’s rather odd announcement on Thursday night that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had directed the Foreign Ministry “to begin to prepare” for the possibility that Israel would leave UNESCO together with the United Sates. Since Israel had no information about the timing of the U.S. decision, there had been no real discussion with the prime minister on the subject. Netanyahu’s “directive” was the result of a conference call of a few minutes that Netanyahu held Thursday night with a few of his advisers and senior Foreign Ministry officials.