March 4, 2022 | Townhall

Returning to UNESCO Will Not Solve Our China Problem

The Senate Appropriations Committee is quietly advancing a change to U.S. laws that would allow the Biden administration to rejoin the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) — a dysfunctional and antisemitic body that works overtime to deny the historical ties between Jews and the Jewish people’s holy sites. The change is needed, supposedly, to enable the United States to better counter China’s influence inside the agency. But as congressional negotiators stare down a March 11 deadline to keep the government funded, House and Senate leaders should maintain current laws and, in the process, save American taxpayers half a billion dollars.

In the early 1990s, Congress passed two bills prohibiting U.S. funding for international organizations that admit a unilaterally declared state of “Palestine” as a member. The idea was to deter Palestinians from seeking statehood in international organizations while refusing to make tough sacrifices at the negotiating table with Israel. The United States has long held that Palestinian statehood can result only from direct negotiations between the parties and that, by recognizing a Palestinian state outside of those negotiations, international bodies would simply forestall a peaceful solution to the conflict.

In 2011, knowing full well that admitting the Palestinians would cost UNESCO its biggest donor, the body’s member states voted overwhelmingly to do so, triggering the U.S. laws and pushing the agency into one of the most politicized conflicts in the world. Before pulling its funding, America contributed more than 20 percent of UNESCO’s budget —$80 million in 2011 alone.

But even after the Obama administration cut UNESCO funding in 2011, the United States remained a member, wielding little influence over its agenda and accruing $500 million in arrears. The Trump administration announced its withdrawal from UNESCO in 2017, citing concerns over the mounting arrears, need for reform, and continuing anti-Israel bias.

The anti-Israel bias was on clear display in 2016 and 2017 when UNESCO passed resolutions denying the Jewish connection to the land of Israel both at theTemple Mount in Jerusalem and at theTomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Jewish history dates back thousands of years. Unsurprisingly, Israel announced its departure from UNESCO shortly after the United States.

More recently, however, the Israeli government reportedly told the Biden administration it would not oppose an apparent State Department desire to rejoin the organization. Nor did Israel put up any significant fight when the United States resumed funding to the troubled UN Relief and Works Agency or returned to the vociferously anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council without first securing reforms in either organization. In light of its deepening rift with Washington over an impending Iran nuclear deal, the fragile coalition government in Jerusalem is picking its battles carefully.

Ultimately, only Congress can answer the question of whether American taxpayers should pay $500 million in arrears to an organization that remains in violation of U.S. law and has not reversed its institutional denial of the Jewish people’s historic ties to Israel.

Last year, some in Washington urged the State Department to rejoin UNESCO in order to push back on Chinese influence in education and culture. China has become the leading donor to UNESCO in America’s absence. Toward the end of last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its draft foreign aid bill for fiscal year 2022. Tucked inside was a new provision: The president could waive current laws prohibiting U.S. contributions to UNESCO if he tells Congress the funding is needed to counter China inside the organization.

The problem, though, is that there is no evidence to suggest that the United States could effectively counter China in the education and cultural domains by giving money to UNESCO. Meaningful pushback can occur only through bilateral engagements between the United States and its partners — including foreign governments and private institutions — about Beijing’s myriad threats. Absent structural reforms to wrest power and influence away from world despots and return them to free democracies, there is no reason to believe UNESCO will end up looking any different than the Human Rights Council does today.

The U.S. funding cut and eventual withdrawal from UNESCO have presented a cautionary tale to other international bodies that might consider allowing Palestinian membership. The United States should hold UNESCO accountable by making clear that a return to the body is contingent on its repeal of antisemitic resolutions and its rescinding of Palestinian membership. Anything short of this would constitute a shameful waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars, merely emboldening the Palestinian leadership to press for membership in new international bodies. Congress should maintain current laws and reject the Senate Appropriations Committee’s proposed change.

Enia Krivine is the senior director of the Israel Program and National Security Network at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser. Follow them on Twitter @EKrivine and @rich_goldberg. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China International Organizations Israel Palestinian Politics