PARIS — The United States said Thursday it is pulling out of the U.N.'s educational, scientific and cultural agency because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and need for "fundamental reform."
While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the announcement by the State Department on Thursday rocked the agency's Paris headquarters, where a heated election to choose a new chief is underway.
The outgoing UNESCO director-general expressed her "profound regret" at the decision and tried to defend the reputation of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.
The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh on policy behind the scenes. The U.S. now owes about $550 million in back payments.
In a statement, the State Department said the decision will take effect Dec. 31, 2018, and that the U.S. will seek a "permanent observer" status instead. It cited U.S. belief in "the need for fundamental reform in the organization."
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, praised Washington's move as heralding "a new day at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel."
"UNESCO has become a battlefield for Israel bashing and has disregarded its true role and purpose," Danon said in a statement. The organization's absurd and shameful resolutions against Israel have consequences."
Several U.S. diplomats who were to have been posted to UNESCO 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 lack of staffing and funding plans for UNESCO by the U.S. have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of UNESCO by senior U.S. officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
U.S. officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and that it was not discussed with other countries but was the result of an internal U.S. government deliberation.
The officials, who were not authorized to be publicly named discussing the issue, said the U.S. is notably angry over UNESCO resolutions denying Jewish connections to holy sites and references to Israel as an occupying power.
Chris Hegadorn, the U.S. Charge d'Affaires and ranking U.S. representative to UNESCO, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that the decision to pull out was linked to "the unfortunate politicization of the mandate of UNESCO, where anti-Israel bias has been a major factor and something the US has been struggling to address."
"The accrual of arrears since 2011 since the admission of Palestine as a member state had been mounting," he added.
Many saw the 2011 UNESCO vote to include Palestine as evidence of long-running, ingrained anti-Israel bias within the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.
UNESCO's outgoing director-general, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, called the U.S. departure a loss for "the United Nations family" and for multilateralism. She said the U.S. and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now to better fight "the rise of violent extremism and terrorism."
She defended UNESCO's reputation, noting its efforts to support Holocaust education and train teachers to fight anti-Semitism — and that that the Statue of Liberty is among the many World Heritage sites protected by the U.N. agency. UNESCO also works to improve education for girls in poor countries and in scientific fields and to defend media freedom, among other activities.
UNESCO's executive board plans to select its choice to succeed Bokova by Friday in a secret ballot.
It's not the first time the U.S. has pulled out of UNESCO: Washington did the same thing in the 1980s because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The U.S. rejoined in 2003.
Hegadorn said the U.S. would remain a force at the cultural agency in the same way as it was from 1984 when the country withdrew under President Ronald Reagan.
The U.S. informed Bokova it intends to stay engaged as a non-member 'observer state' on "non-politicized" issues, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.
"We will be carefully watching how the organization and the new director general steers the agency," Hegadorn said. "Ideally, it steers it in way that U.S. interests and UNESCO's mandate will converge."
Lee reported from Washington.