Israeli envoy wants to rethink withdrawal from UN agency

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations' cultural agency said Tuesday he will recommend that his government reconsider leaving UNESCO or at least postpone the departure set for the end of the year.

Ambassador Carmel Shama Hacohen's remarks came hours after UNESCO's World Heritage Committee agreed at its meeting in Bahrain to put off for a year controversial resolutions on the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Hebron.

The United States, quickly followed by Israel, decided last year to leave the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The withdrawal process requires a year, and both exits are scheduled to take effect on Dec. 31.

An alleged anti-Israel bias at UNESCO, where the Jewish state and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters, was among the reasons the counties cited.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling UNESCO a "theater of the absurd" that allegedly distorted history instead of preserving it.

The committee agreeing to do nothing with the pair of resolutions for one year was seen as a victory for UNESCO. The U.N.'s cultural and educational arm has become a forum for bitter political spats between Israelis and Palestinians, jeopardizing its credibility and work. Palestine became a member of the organization in 2011.

Other sensitive resolutions were postponed in April.

Hacohen, who wasn't in Bahrain for the committee meeting, said by telephone Tuesday that he would "recommend at least to reconsider our decision" to withdraw. Another option would be to postpone the departure date, he said.

"I'm not sure that it will be enough and change dramatically the decisions" because the topics of Jerusalem and UNESCO have become so sensitive in Israel, he said. "We still have to work on it."

The United States played a key role in working out the stand-down, and U.S. officials at UNESCO are considering making another plea for Congress to allow the U.S. to remain a member by changing a law that already reduced the country's role at the agency, a senior U.S. official said. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the official asked to remain anonymous.

However, a reversal would be an expensive proposition because arears are mounting. The flow of U.S. funds to UNESCO was halted after Palestine became a member. Before that, the United States contributed $80 million annually in dues — 22 percent of UNESCO's overall budget.

The Israeli ambassador and U.S. officials have portrayed UNESCO's new director-general, Audrey Azoulay, as bringing a new spirit to the organization, and the recent decisions not to deal with divisive resolutions as a potential opening to setting the rocky ship aright.

Azoulay said in a Monday speech to the World Heritage Committee that she wanted her office to be a facilitator, if others were willing.

However, Hacohen said there still would be no access for UNESCO experts to check Jerusalem and its walls, which the Israelis have barred.

Both the Old City of Jerusalem and the biblical city of Hebron are on the World Heritage List of endangered sites, meaning their status must be reviewed annually. Last year's decision to add Hebron as a Palestinian heritage site outraged Israelis, who said Jewish national symbols were being appropriated.