The United States is planning to officially announce its withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) due to its anti-Israeli stances, American news site Foreign Policy reported Thursday.
The State Department officially anounced the withdrawl, slated to take effect December 31, 2018, saying, "This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO."
The United States would seek to "remain engaged ...as a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise," the State Department added.
The withdrawal would also constitute a cost-saving measure for the US, the report added, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson interested in halting American funding for the organization and paying off America's debt to the UN group, which is $500 million.
The withdrawal would mark a sharp escalation in the relationship between the US and the organization it helped found after World War II in order to promote collaborations in the field of education.
Most of the American ire was directed at the organization due to its positions on Israel. Last year, Israel attacked UNESCO after it denounced Israel's control of holy sites in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In response to the announcement, UNESCO expressed regret over the United States' official decision to leave its organisation.
"After receiving official notification by the United States Secretary of State, Mr Rex Tillerson, as UNESCO Director-General, I wish to express profound regret at the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from UNESCO," said UNESCO director general Irina Bokova in a statement.
Bokova added that the US decision marked a loss for multilateralism and for the UN family.
Relations soured further when UNESCO announced the Old City of Hebron to be a Palestinian World Heritage Site this past July.
US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley joined the condemnation then, stating the US will reexamine its relationship with the organization.
"The decision is an affront to history and further discredits an already highly questionable UN agency," she stated.
The vote "does no one any good and causes much harm," Haley added.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu termed UNESCO's decision on Hebron "absurd."
Netanyahu protested the fact UNESCO determined the Cave of the Patriarchs was a Palestinian site, "meaning not Jewish... Is this not a Jewish site?! Who's buried there? Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Sara, Rebecca and Leah. Our patriarchs and matriarchs!"
The prime minister also took issue with the declaration of the site as a world heritage site in danger. "Only where Israel is present, like in Hebron, the freedom of religion for all is guaranteed," Netanyahu said.
Tillerson decided to withdraw from the organization as far back as several weeks ago, the report claimed, announcing the decision to French President Emmanuel Macron, who asked for President Donald Trump's help in upgrading his statue within the group.
France's delegate to the UN François Delattre said in an interview Wednesday he hopes the US decides to stay in UNESCO. "For us, it is important to have the United States on board, including at UNESCO at this critical juncture. We consider the US must stay committed to world affairs."
The American State Department delayed announcing the decision until current UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova was replaced. The two leading candidates to succeed her at the organization's helm are former Jewish French Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay and Qatari diplomat Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari.
Trump would not be first president to seek UNESCO withdrawal
The last time the United States decided to withdraw from the cultural organization, it was Ronald Reagan's administration that blamed it for corruption and a political bent in favor of the Soviet Union, at the then height of the Cold War.
President George W. Bush had the US rejoin the organization in 2002, saying its members toned down their anti-Western and anti-Israeli positions.
Six years ago, during Barak Obama's administration, the US cut more than $80 million of funding—a fifth of UNESCO's total budget—in response to the organization admitting the "State of Palestine" as member. The Obama administration claimed at the time the move had to be carried out due to laws prohibiting American funding of UN bodies recognizing a Palestinian state.
Despite the slashed funding, the United States remained a prominent member of the organization and reserved the right to vote in UNESCO's Executive Board, which determines the identity of the organization's Director-General, despite no longer being able to vote in its General Conference.
Reuters contributed to this report.