By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - The United Nations' cultural agency will elect a new chief on Friday, seeking someone who can revive UNESCO's fortunes after the United States and Israel pulled out.
Whoever gets the job will need to restore relevance to the agency whose mission to protect the world's cultural and natural heritage has been hobbled by regional rivalries and a lack of money.
After five days of secret balloting at UNESCO's Paris HQ two former culture ministers, Qatar's Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and France's Audrey Azoulay, face off in the final vote of the 58-member Executive Board, scheduled for Friday evening.
If the two finalists are level, they draw lots to decide who leads the agency for the next four years.
"More than ever UNESCO needs a project that rallies the member states, re-establishes trust and cuts through the political divisions for the sake of UNESCO," French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne said ahead of the vote to replace Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who has led the body since 2009.
The United States is meant to provide a fifth of UNESCO's funding, but had already been withholding that since 2011 when the body admitted Palestine as a full member. It announced its departure on Thursday accusing UNESCO of anti-Israeli bias. Israel itself followed.
"Unfortunately, this venue has become politicized, undermining the work of UNESCO across its mandate. It's become a venue for anti-Israel bias, and unfortunately we are taking the decision to withdraw from UNESCO at this time," U.S. charge d'affaires at UNESCO, Chris Hegadorn told Reuters.
With a Qatari and an Egyptian earlier vying for the job, the election has been troubled by the standoff between Doha and several of its Arab neighbors that have severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism, something it denies.
The Qatari, Kawari, who has been subject of barbs from Egyptian officials over the last week and been subjected to online abuse said on Thursday night he was confident he would win and wanted to reunite the member states.
(Additional reporting by Miranda Alexander-Webber; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)