Jul 28, 2021 - World

Scoop: Israel weighs a return to UNESCO

Jerusalem’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty

The Israeli government is weighing rejoining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which Israel left in 2019 together with the U.S., Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: An Israeli return to UNESCO, which promotes the preservation of cultural sites around the world and holds educational programs, could help pave the way for the Biden administration to rejoin the organization — and help fend off criticism from Republicans.

The backstory: Several weeks ago, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid asked his ministry to review the matter.

  • Lapid's view, the officials say, was that Israel's withdrawal from international forums over claims they were biased only made Israeli foreign policy less effective.

Behind the scenes: Around the same time, Lapid received a phone call from the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, who urged him to rejoin UNESCO, per sources familiar with the matter.

Flashback: In October 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the U.S. would leave UNESCO over funding issues, unmet U.S. demands for reforms and bias against Israel.

  • Israel was surprised by the decision but moved to follow suit, with that decision coming into force in January 2019. Israel had also been very critical of UNESCO, mainly over resolutions that the government said minimized the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
  • This was the second time the U.S. left UNESCO. The Reagan administration withdrew in the 1980s, and the George W. Bush administration rejoined two decades later.
  • In 2011, the U.S. froze funding for UNESCO — which amounted to one-quarter of the organization's budget — after a majority of member states recognized Palestine as a state and allowed it to join as a full member. As a result of the unpaid dues, the U.S. voting rights in UNESCO were revoked.

The big picture: The U.S. retreat paved the way for China to have much more influence over UNESCO's decisions. The Chinese even want to move some of UNESCO’s departments to Shanghai.

Between the lines: Rejoining UNESCO would be politically sensitive in both the U.S. and Israel.

  • In 2016, after UNESCO passed a Palestinian-led resolution that questioned the Jewish connection to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, then-Minister of Education Naftali Bennett decided to halt all contacts between his ministry and the UN agency. Bennett is now prime minister.
  • In order to rejoin UNESCO, the U.S. would have to pay around $500 million in membership dues, which would require action by Congress. Many members of Congress, including some Democrats, are highly critical of UNESCO over alleged anti-Israel bias.
  • A law passed by Congress in the 1990s bans U.S. funding for any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a full member state.

What’s next: The Foreign Ministry's International Organizations Department has been discussing the issue of a return to UNESCO and is expected to present its recommendation to Lapid soon, the Israeli officials say.

  • A spokesperson for Lapid told me the Israeli government will coordinate any possible decision about UNESCO with the Biden administration.
Go deeper