The United States and Israel announced Thursday they are quitting UNESCO after Washington accused the UN's cultural agency of anti-Israeli bias.
The withdrawal of the United States, which is meant to provide a fifth of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's funding, is a major blow for the Paris-based organization, founded after the Second World War to help protect cultural and natural heritage around the world.
UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage Sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and the Grand Canyon National Park.
"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias," the State Department's Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Hours later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would quit too, calling the U.S. decision "brave and moral."
UNESCO director general Irina Bokova expressed her disappointment: "At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack," she said.
"This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism."
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Washington has already been withholding its funding for UNESCO since 2011, when the body gave full-member status to the Palestinians. The United States and Israel were among just 14 of 194 members that voted against admitting the Palestinians. Washington's arrears on its $80 million US annual dues since then are now over $500 million.
Although Washington supports a future independent Palestinian state, it says this should emerge out of peace talks and it considers it unhelpful for international organizations to admit the Palestinian interests until negotiations are complete.
'New day at the UN'
In recent years, Israel has repeatedly complained about what it says is the body taking sides in disputes over cultural heritage sites in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
"Today is a new day at the UN, where there is price to pay for discrimination against Israel," said Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon.
Netanyahu told world leaders at the UN General Assembly last month that UNESCO was promoting "fake history" after it designated Hebron and the two adjoined shrines at its heart — the Jewish Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Muslim Ibrahimi Mosque — as a "Palestinian World Heritage Site in Danger."
An Arab-backed UNESCO resolution last year condemned Israeli's policies at religious sites in East Jerusalam and the West Bank.
In a statement, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, said those "outrageous" designations were major factors in the U.S. decision.
"The purpose of UNESCO is a good one. Unfortunately, its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment. The Tomb of the Patriarchs decision was just the latest in a long line of foolish actions, which includes keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protesters," Haley said.
"Just as we said in 1984 when President Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense."
'It's not just about money'
Under UNESCO rules, the U.S. withdrawal will become effective as of the end of December 2018. Three diplomats had told Reuters earlier on Thursday of the impending decision.
The organization, which employs around 2,000 people worldwide, most of them based in Paris, has struggled for relevance as it becomes increasingly hobbled by regional rivalries and a lack of money.
"The absence of the United States or any large country with a lot of power is a loss. It's not just about money, it's promoting ideals that are vital to countries like the United States, such as education and culture," a UNESCO-based diplomat said, warning that others could follow.
For differing reasons, Britain, Japan and Brazil are among states that have yet to pay their dues for 2017.
Russia's former envoy to UNESCO told RIA news agency the agency was better off without the Americans.
"In recent years, they've been of no use for this organisation," Eleanora Mitrofanova said. "Since 2011 they have practically not been paying to the budget of this organization... They decided to exit — this is absolutely in line with [U.S. President Donald] Trump's general logic today."