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UNESCO chief says U.S. ’empty chair’ can’t last

PARIS — New UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay has rebuked the U.S. for its decision to withdraw from the U.N. cultural body for alleged anti-Israel bias and says America is “affected by everything” the agency does.

Following her confirmation Friday as director general, Azoulay acknowledged difficulties in the Paris-based organization that has been rocked by U.S. funding cuts since 2011 over the admission of Palestine as a member.

But the 45-year-old former French culture minister told The Associated Press that the Trump administration’s announcement to pull out of the agency is not tenable in the long term.

“I obviously regret their departure … but this ’empty chair politics’ is not sustainable because the United States is also affected by everything that UNESCO does,” she said, speaking at the agency’s Paris headquarters.

The U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, but it also works to fight violent extremism, improve education for girls, promote Holocaust understanding, defend media freedoms and encourage science on climate change.

Azoulay, who will be officially sworn in Monday, said the American withdrawal “did not come as a surprise” given the “critical position” the U.S. has taken recently — a reference to President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies.

Azoulay said she will maintain a dialogue with the U.S., which plans to remain as a “permanent observer.”

The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh in on policy behind the scenes. The U.S. now owes about $550 million in back payments.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel also plans to withdraw from the agency. Israel has been irked by resolutions that diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and have named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites. Israel told The AP it planned to pull out of the agency this month.

There have been hopes that Azoulay, the organization’s first Jewish chief who is also of Moroccan descent, would be able to quell the political tempest inside the organization that was created following World War II to promote peace.

“I have multiple identities. An identity built on multiplicity, built on diversity. And I have experienced in my life how much of an opportunity that is — how much in today’s modern world this complexity and diversity is an asset,” she said.

She warned against writing UNESCO off.

“It’s prejudicial to UNESCO to reduce its scope of work to a few hotbeds of tensions,” she said. “We are always stronger with multilateral dialogue. It’s as true for Israel as it is for other countries.”

UNESCO’s Executive Board nominated Azoulay their next chief after an unusually heated election overshadowed by Mideast tensions. The choice was confirmed Friday by the General Conference who voted 131-19 to appoint her.

She will be UNESCO’s second female chief after outgoing leader Irina Bokova and its second French chief. While she is Jewish, her father is Moroccan and was an influential adviser to Moroccan kings, so she also has a connection to the Arab world.

Masha Macpherson and Oleg Cetinic contributed in Paris to this report.

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