Feb 9, 2022 - World

Scoop: Israel wouldn't oppose U.S. return to UNESCO

A general view of the UNESCO meeting in November 2019 in Paris. Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A general view of the UNESCO meeting in November 2019 in Paris. Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Israeli government recently notified the State Department it wouldn’t oppose a U.S. return to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Israeli and U.S. officials told me.

Why it matters: The new Israeli position paves the way for Congress to vote on the allocation of the more than $500 million needed to pay the U.S. debt to UNSECO and return as a full member.

Flashback: After Palestine became a full member of UNESCO in 2011, the Obama administration stopped providing funding to the organization because it was barred to do so by U.S. law.

  • In October 2017, the Trump administration announced it was leaving UNESCO over what it described as anti-Israel bias. Israel announced that it would leave the organization not long after.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials said the Biden administration asked Israel several times in recent months not to oppose a U.S. return to UNESCO.

  • The Biden administration stressed to Israeli officials it wants to return to the organization to counter the growing influence of the Chinese government on the UN agency's agenda, Israeli officials said.

The big picture: The Biden administration needs Israel to not oppose the move in order to convince members of Congress to vote in favor of a bill that will allow Biden to waive the law that stopped U.S. funding.

  • UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay worked behind the scenes for months to lobby members of Congress and reassure Israel she won’t allow anti-Israeli bias.
  • Israeli officials told me they have recently briefed several lawmakers about the new Israeli position.

State of play: Legislation introduced in the Senate includes a snap-back clause that states that if the Palestinians obtain a member state status in a UN agency, the U.S. will stop its funding again.

  • The bill will sunset on Sept. 30, 2025, when the current director general of UNESCO leaves office but could be extended further.

What they're saying: "It is very important to the Biden administration and it is not the same UNESCO. We received assurances that Israel will not be treated as it used to be treated," a senior Israeli official said.

  • A State Department spokesperson said it has nothing to announce about UNESCO at this time. 
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