Blow to multilateralism
The US has already withheld UNESCO funding since 2011 when the body admitted Palestine as a full member.
The US decision to withdraw its membership of the UN cultural agency UNESCO citing its "anti-Israel bias" is a major blow for the Paris-based organisation founded after World War II to help protect cultural and natural heritage around the globe.
The decision, which will come into effect on December 31, 2018, also reflects a significant escalation by Washington in its criticism of UN bodies. President Donald Trump administration also cited mounting arrears at the organisation as a reason for the decision.
"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Hours after the US announcement on October 12, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will too quit the body and called the Trump administration decision as "brave and moral."
"This is a brave and moral decision because UNESCO has become a theatre of absurd. Instead of preserving the history, it distorts it," the Israeli Prime Minister said.
The organisation has often drawn the ire of the US and Israel for a number of decisions, including the listing of Hebron, a city in the southern part of the occupied Palestinian territories, as a Palestinian heritage.
In July, UNESCO declared the ancient and hotly-contested core of Hebron, in the Israeli occupied West Bank, as a Palestinian World Heritage site in danger, inviting a sharp criticism from Israel. In 2015 the agency adopted a resolution criticising Israel for mishandling heritage sites in Jerusalem and also condemned "Israeli aggression and illegal measures against freedom of worship."
The recognition of the World Heritage sites in the Palestinian territories, like Hebron and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the 2015 resolution and another in 2016, were seen by President Trump and Netanyahu as a reflection of an anti-Israel bias.
The 2016 resolution, moved by Palestinians, condemned Israel's "escalating aggressions" with regard to a holy site in Jerusalem's old city, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount. It referred to the holy site only using Muslim names, drawing sharp reaction from Israel.
The US has already withheld UNESCO funding since 2011 when the body admitted Palestine as a full member. The US and Israel were among just 14 of 194 members that voted against admitting Palestinians. Washington arrears on its USD 80 million annual dues since then are now over USD 500 million.
Various efforts by President Barack Obama to overturn the legal restriction failed in Congress, and the United States lost its vote at the agency after two years of non-payment in 2013.
During the Cold War, the US withdrew from the UNESCO, whose full name is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, in 1984 because the Reagan administration deemed the organisation too susceptible to Moscow's influence and overly critical of Israel. However, in 2002 the then President George W Bush decided to rejoin the agency in part to show his willingness for international cooperation in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
The outgoing UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova expressed profound regret over the US decision saying "this is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism."
The US decision came as the UNESCO executive board was in the midst for electing a new director general to succeed Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who has led the body since 2009.
Former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay, 45, was selected after she edged Qatar's Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari after the fifth round of voting in a keenly contested election. The decision will now be put forward for approval to UNESCO's 195 members on November 10.
The outcome of the election was a blow for Arab states that have long wanted to lead the body that has so far had European, Asian, African and American chiefs, but never one from an Arab country.
Once confirmed by UNESCO members, Azoulay would inherit a body in turmoil, with questions over its future funding and mission. She will have to make efforts not only to remove the perceived anti-Israel bias but also to restore the relevance of the agency that is increasingly getting hobbled by regional rivalries and lack of fund.
In brief remarks after her election, Azoulay said the response to UNESCO's problems should be to reform the body and not to walk away from it. "In this moment of crisis, I believe we must invest in UNESCO more than ever, look to support and reinforce it and to reform it. And not leave it," she said.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal.)