Trump puts Israel first with UNESCO withdrawal

Israel has tried to use UNESCO to legitimize its colonization of Palestinian heritage sites in the occupied West Bank, including Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.

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Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy was on full display Thursday when the State Department announced that the United States is withdrawing from UNESCO over the United Nations cultural body’s supposed “anti-Israel bias.”

Under President Barack Obama, the US had already cut funding to the agency because of a US law that restricts support to UN bodies that recognize Palestine as a state.

UNESCO head Irina Bokova expressed regret at the US decision.

Bokova has previously bent over backwards to appease Israel, including by echoing its false claims of anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.

The extent to which US leaders are willing to serve Israel is demonstrated by a simple thought experiment: it’s impossible to imagine the US pulling out of any world body citing an “anti-Canadian,” “anti-British” or an “anti-French” bias. Even though they are among the closest US allies, such a move would immediately subject the president to accusations from his virulently nationalistic base of putting foreign interests before American ones.

Yet President Trump is likely to hear much praise, and not only from the more right-wing segments of the American establishment.

In April, all 100 US Senators signed a letter endorsing the myth that the UN has an “anti-Israel agenda.”

This means there is not likely to be much critical examination in such circles of the bogus claims of anti-Israel bias.

Israeli smears

In recent months, Israel and its supporters have falsely claimed that UNESCO resolutions have undermined Jewish connections to heritage sites in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

A year ago, Israel attempted to have Jerusalem’s Old City, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque compound, removed from UNESCO’s list of endangered world heritage sites.

That effort came as groups that call for the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque and its replacement with a Jewish temple intensified their activities, often with Israeli government funding and support.

The Israeli attempt came two weeks after UNESCO had voted to condemn the myriad well-documented ways Israel violates the rights of Palestinian and Muslim worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque and threatens the architectural integrity of the compound.

Israel falsely claimed that the vote denied a Jewish connection to the al-Aqsa mosque site that Jews call Temple Mount.

As a result of that vote, Israel launched a global smear campaign against UNESCO, even likening it to the Islamic State group, or ISIS.

Upholding international law

Some UN officials caved in to the Israeli bullying and distanced themselves from the resolution.

But in May, UNESCO passed a resolution that, in line with international law, called Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem “null and void” and demanded that Israel halt excavations and other works in the city.

Israel again launched a campaign of smears, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu terming the resolution “delusional” and “bizarre.”

The only thing that UNESCO had done was to reaffirm what the UN Security Council had stated just months earlier: that Israel is the occupying power and must abide by international law.

Months later, Israel’s ire was raised again when UNESCO passed two resolutions again upholding international law.

The resolutions recognized Hebron’s Old City and Ibrahimi mosque as endangered Palestinian heritage sites.

Distorting history

Israel again went on a verbal rampage, claiming that UNESCO promotes “lies” and “fake history.”

“This time they decided that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site, meaning not Jewish, and that it’s in danger,” Netanyahu claimed.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the name used by Israel for the Ibrahimi mosque, where an American Jewish settler massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994. The site is venerated by Muslims, Christians and Jews as the burial place of Abraham and other prophets.

What Netanyahu did – as Israeli officials often do – is conflate Jewish belief with Israeli control, as if a site cannot be both revered by Jews and located in Palestinian territory. There is, however, no contradiction between a site being Palestinian, on the one hand, and sacred to Muslims, Christians or Jews, on the other.

So what “anti-Israel bias” means in practice is failing to enthusiastically endorse Israel’s distortions and lies aimed at legitimizing its illegal colonization and its attempts to erase any history in Palestine that does not bolster the Zionist colonial narrative.

The US withdrawal comes as UNESCO is set to elect Bokova’s successor this week, a contest that Israeli media have painted as a sectarian battle between a Muslim frontrunner from Qatar and a Jewish candidate from France.

There is little reason to lament the departure of the US from UNESCO. What would be even better is if Israel follows it out too.

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But...the USA hasn't paid a dime towards UNESCO since 2011 when under Obama it chucked a hissy fit because of the admittance of Palestine to the UNESCO. The wonder is not so much why the USA has now seen fit to withdraw but why it was still given the status of a member given its non-payment of its dues. The USA was out of UNESCO under Reagan and did not re-engage under Clinton; that was left to George W of all people.

The US arrears to UNESCO have been adding up; apparently $US 80 million pa. How exactly is the US formal notice of withdrawal anything but a non-event in terms of the good work done by UNESCO? $US 80 million is barely a drop in the US budget - and what does the US gain by withdrawing? How much of its diminishing soft power is it prepared to give up for Israel?

My favourite bit of it all is the kind intention of the US to contribute its 'expertise' as a non-member observer. How very thoughtful. But the day may well come when more canny States like China (or others) may decide to up their financial contributions and grab some of the soft power that the USA is flinging away like the mad woman's washing. This is not just Trump madness. Democrats like Clinton and Obama effectively walked away from UNESCO.

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Netanyahu is pulling the strings Trump is the puppet. Anyone who thinks Trump will favor Palestine in a peace deal with Israel, is living in cloud cuckoo land.

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.