(CN)) - Citing “anti-Israel bias,” the U.S. State Department announced Thursday it will withdraw from the world heritage organization, UNESCO.
The decision comes as the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is voting to choose a new director this week, in tense balloting overshadowed by the agency's funding troubles and divisions over Palestinian membership.
This is the second time the United States has withdrawn from UNESCO.
In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan claimed the organization was exhibiting favoritism toward the Soviet Union, and he cited this claim as his reason for the exit. President George W. Bush readmitted the U.S. in 2002, but in 2011, after the organization accepted Palestine as a member, all U.S. funding stopped flowing to the group.
The State Department notified UNESCO Director Irina Bokova of its decision to withdraw and instead, secure “permanent observer mission” status.
“This decision was not taken lightly and reflect U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” the State Department said in Thursday’s announcement.
As a non-member permanent observer, the U.S. will still be able to contribute “U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.”
The withdrawal will not officially take effect until Dec. 31, 2018.
In a phone interview Thursday, Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the U.S. decision to withdraw will “cripple” the organization’s ability to offer its wealth of resources to those in need.
“The argument that it is because of an anti-Israel bias is nonsense. What there is, on the part of U.S. politicians, is an anti-Arab bias and we allow Israel to drive this train. And they’re driving us into a train wreck,” Zogby said.
The damage being done by the withdrawal will be difficult to recuperate from, he added, saying that historically, UNESCO has not exhibited an “anti-Israel” bias but rather, “spoke out on what Israel is doing in [Palestine and other Arab communities].”
“In the face of Israel literally transforming Jerusalem, when a thousand people are displaced, when homes are demolished to create a plaza near the Wailing Wall, [like was done in 1967], UNESCO said Israel did not have the right to demolish homes in the dark of night with no court order, no discussion... When the same thing happens today, and Arab homes are seized, all of these issues speak to basic human rights concerns of people but also for the protection of historical sites,” Zogby said.”
The recent U.S. trend of pulling out of international agreements is troubling to Zogby.
“We’ve been pulling out of agreements and accords and compromising other nations all along the way. [Today’s decision] simply compounds that situation. It’s just another piece of damage to add to the pile,” he said.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, differed sharply from Zogby’s stance and celebrated the announcement in a statement Thursday.
“For years, UNESCO has betrayed its original laudatory mission... and chosen instead to unfairly target the Middle East’s lone democracy, Israel. For example, last year the organization adopted a resolution outrageously attempting to undermine historic Jewish and Christian ties to the Old City of Jerusalem,” the committee said.
With UNESCO’s “one sided animus toward the Jewish state,” AIPAC said, there has been a concerted effort to undermine the pursuit of a “peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by giving support to forces in the Palestinian community that reject reconciliation.”
Earlier decisions by the U.S. to withhold funds from UNESCO when Palestine was first admitted to the organization circumvented that process, the group said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R.-Calif., aligned himself with the Trump administration when he called the decision to pull out of the organization “unfortunate but appropriate given UNESCO’s mismanagement and disturbing anti-Israel bias.”
UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions around the world. The agency also works to improve education for girls in desperately poor countries and in scientific fields, to promote better understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and to defend media freedom, among other activities.
The Trump administration has been preparing for a likely withdrawal for months, and a decision was expected before the end of the year, according to U.S. officials. Several diplomats who were to have been posted to the mission this summer were told that their positions were on hold and advised to seek other jobs.
In addition, the Trump administration's proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains no provision for the possibility that UNESCO funding restrictions might be lifted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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