Washington’s return to UNESCO will work in Israel’s favour

Ramona Wadi

Middle East Monitor  /  February 15, 2022

In 2017, the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), citing “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.” A few hours later, Israel followed suit, with then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing the organization as “a theatre of the absurd.” The Israeli ambassador to the UN at the time, Danny Danon, opined, “Today is a new day at the UN where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.” On 1 January 2019, the US and Israel officially left the organization.

Last year, though, the US announced its intention to re-join UNESCO, “to counter Chinese influence or promote other US interests,” reported Reuters.

The Jerusalem Post added that Israel has no intention of rejoining, although last year Foreign Minister Yair Lapid considered following in America’s footsteps, arguing that Israel’s absence from UNESCO had no effect on “anti-Israel bias”. He also admitted that Israel’s decision to quit UNESCO made it difficult to influence foreign policy.

To rejoin UNESCO, the US Congress would have to waive a bill that prevents Washington from funding international organizations which accept the Palestinian Authority as a full member. The US decision is said to have been influenced by UNESCO changing its approach towards Israel, while Washington is expected to counter any anti-Israel bias, following talks between Israeli and US officials.

Israel had opposed UNESCO’s designations of Palestinian heritage sites, which it described as erasing history and memory. Never mind that Israel is built upon the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the erasure of their collective memory and sites. Perhaps the biggest and most obvious erasure in Israeli memory is that the settler-colonial state did not exist prior to the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) and so neither Palestinians nor UNESCO can be faulted for designating Palestinian heritage sites which date from well before Israel was created as “Palestinian”.

Moreover, accusing UNESCO of anti-Israel bias follows no logic, given that UNESCO has recognized sites as pertaining to Israeli heritage, including Tel-Aviv’s “White City”, which means that the organization has also legitimized Israel’s violent settler-colonial origins and existence. If Israel decides to follow Lapid’s suggestion, UNESCO is expected to increase the number of heritage sites attributed to Israel.

For now, the US is expected to pave the way for Israel’s return, hence the Israeli government’s insistence that it will not oppose the Biden administration’s decision to re-join the UN body. Meanwhile, Israel will seek to extort further concessions, all the while planning to return to the organization and condescend to grace UNESCO with its presence, rather than a reappearance gloating at having colonized and appropriated more Palestinian land, history and memory.

This whole gimmicky process makes Israel’s accusations of international institutions harbouring “anti-Israel bias” collapse. All international institutions have legitimized Israel’s origins and existence, despite violations of international law and war crimes committed by Zionist paramilitary gangs prior to 1948, and in the uniforms of the “Israel Defence Forces” from then to the present day. The debacle of departing and hinting at returning is a ploy for colonial gain, and for such gain to be recognized by international resolutions and declarations.

Washington’s return to UNESCO will thus work in Israel’s favour. It wouldn’t do so otherwise.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger; her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America