By Patricia Zengerle and John Irish
WASHINGTON/PARIS (Reuters) - The United States is making early moves toward rejoining the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO four years after former President Donald Trump withdrew the country over accusations of anti-Israel bias, congressional and diplomatic sources said.
The United States provided one-fifth of the Paris-based agency's funding, but Trump's predecessor Barack Obama stopped paying in 2011 when Palestine became a full member because it is barred by U.S. law. Washington owed $542 million when it quit.
However, encouraged by President Joe Biden's administration, the Senate Appropriations Committee introduced legislation this week to waive that law if Biden - and appropriate congressional committees - believe rejoining UNESCO would allow Washington to counter Chinese influence or promote other U.S. interests.
"We don't have anything to announce on UNESCO at this time," said a U.S. diplomat.
Israel also withdrew from UNESCO at the same time as the United States. A Western diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Israel was keen to return, but was waiting for Washington to move first.
UNESCO said in a statement that the return of the United States and Israel would be "good news" and sees "real hope" for their return but "the timing and modalities ... have yet to be defined."
According to the Senate legislation, the United States would be required to withdraw from UNESCO if the Palestinians joined any more U.N. agencies. Washington would also have to quit those bodies.
To become law, the appropriations bill containing the waiver would have to pass both the Senate and House of Representatives, and there has been no indication from congressional leaders when such a vote might take place.
UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, who is set to be elected for a new term next month, travelled to the United States last month. She lobbied Biden's wife, Jill, who has been involved in past UNESCO teaching programmes, as well as senators, said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israel's foreign ministry declined to comment when asked about a potential return to UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
It is best known for designating and protecting archaeological and heritage sites, from the Galapagos Islands to the tombs of Timbuktu.
Diplomats said that while Israel and the Palestinians had clashed at UNESCO in the past, both parties were now cooperating under UNESCO mediation, even though Israel is not a member.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and John Irish; editing by Michelle Nichols and Grant McCool)