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Israel backs US return to UNESCO, says Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate Appropriations committee
— Washington (AFP)

Israel, which withdrew from the UN cultural agency UNESCO with the United States over alleged bias in 2019, has no objections to a US return, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

Questioned by lawmakers, Blinken called on Congress to give President Joe Biden the power to waive a US law that requires an end to US funding to any international organization, such as UNESCO, that recognizes Palestine as a state.

"We believe that having the waiver authority would be important and necessary and I can say with authority that our partners in Israel feel the same way. They would support our rejoining UNESCO," Blinken told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Blinken said that the United States has been harmed by its absence, pointing to UNESCO's role in education and the emerging field of artificial intelligence.

"When we're not at the table shaping that conversation and so actually helping to shape those norms and standards, well, someone else is. And that someone else is probably China," Blinken said.

The United States paid about 22 percent or $80 million of the Paris-based agency's budget until 2011 when its admission of a Palestinian state triggered an end to the contributions.

Previous US and Israeli leaders Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu both fully withdrew from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization eight years later.

Israel was angered by decisions that included recognizing the old city of Hebron, home to Jewish and Muslim holy sites in the occupied West Bank, as a Palestinian world heritage site.

Advocates for a US return say that the UN body's current leader, former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay, has successfully addressed charges of bias.