US State Department says decision to quit Unesco reflects concern about 'mounting arrears, need for reform and continuing anti-Israel bias'
The United States and Israel announced on Thursday that they would both withdraw from the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), with Washington accusing the body of "anti-Israel bias".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late on Thursday that Israel was preparing to pull out of UNESCO, hours after the US made a similar announcement.
The Israeli leader called the U.S. decision to exit Unesco "brave and moral", according to a statement.
The statement added that Netanyahu had instructed his Foreign Ministry to begin preparations for leaving the organisation as well.
Hours earlier US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington would establish an "observer mission" to replace its representation at the Paris-based agency.
The United States was angered in 2011 when Unesco members granted Palestine full membership of the body, despite opposition from its ally Israel. Washington opposes any move by UN bodies to recognise the Palestinians as a state, believing that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal.
But the Trump administration is also reviewing many of its multilateral commitments, pursuing what he calls an "America First" foreign policy.
Nauert said the State Department had notified Unesco's outgoing director-general, Irina Bokova, of their decision earlier on Thursday.
"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 at Unesco," she said.
"The United States indicated to the director-general its desire to remain engaged with Unesco as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organisation, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education."
Israel's UN ambassador, Danny Danon, said the decision was the"price to pay for discrimination against Israel".
In July, the Palestinian representatives hailed a Unesco decision to label the heart of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron a protected heritage site - a move Israel called a "moral blot" due to the move giving defacto recognition to Palestinian soverignty of the city.
"This vote is a success for the diplomatic battle fought by Palestine on all fronts, in the face of Israeli and American pressure on member states," the Palestinian foreign ministry said.
Unesco's heritage committee voted 12 to three - with six abstentions - to give heritage status to the Old City in the centre of Hebron, where a few hundred Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli military protection in the midst of more than 200,000 Palestinians.
"Despite a frantic Israeli campaign spreading lies and distorting the facts about the Palestinian rights, the world has recognised our right to register Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque under Palestinian sovereignty," the statement added.