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The United States formally withdrew its membership in UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — the Paris-based group best known to tourists for designating and promoting UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world. There are 23 sites in the US and its territories, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, the Everglades, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and the Statue of Liberty.

“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Shortly after, Israel joined the US in leaving the organization. In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the US withdrawal “brave and moral.”

The US, which owes $500 million to the UNESCO, according to Foreign Policy, has stopped paying dues since 2011,  and will now be “a non-member observer state” that will “contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education,” the State Department said. US membership will officially terminate on Dec. 31, 2018.

“This is not just about World Heritage. UNESCO in itself holds out this ‘positive vision of human society,'” UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement. “At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues. … This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”

The US previously quit UNESCO in 1984, with Ronald Reagan accusing it of corruption and a pro-Soviet bias. Under George W. Bush, the US rejoined the organization in 2002. And then, under Barack Obama, the US cut its funding of the group by $80 million a year, or about 22 percent of its entire budget, after it accepted Palestine as a member. The Israeli ambassador to UNESCO was recalled last year after the group supported a resolution against Israel’s policy on disputed religious sites.

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