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Is Obama boycotting Israel's new settlement university?

Ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel on Wednesday, the embassy here is reportedly sending out around 2,000 invitations to Israeli student representatives from universities across the country to attend his speech in Jerusalem on March 21. All except one: Ariel University in the West Bank settlement of the same name (upgraded from a college to an accredited university last year).

College in Ariel, West Bank (Wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0)

According to several reports in Israeli media, the Ariel Student Union is shocked and upset that the embassy contacted all seven accredited universities within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, but left out Ariel’s students. Student Union head Shai Shachaf called the move “discrimination” and the Jewish Home party has already responded to what it’s calling Obama’s “exclusionary” and “political” move.

MK Yoni Chetboun (Jewish Home) reportedly sent a letter to U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro on behalf of Ariel students, in which he accused the Obama Administration of “boycotting its students,” adding, “Ariel University has been recognized by the Israeli government. By banning its students, your government is taking a specific, unilateral stance, while seemingly saying it isn’t.”

The response I received from the U.S. Embassy: “Not all students from all academic institutions are invited, only those we specifically have partnerships with.” There was no reference to the MK’s letter to Ambassador Shapiro and the allegation that Obama is boycotting the settlement university.

Putting aside how ironic it is for a member of Israeli government to accuse President Obama of a “unilateral stance” when Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the West Bank  as well as U.S. politics are well rooted in unilateralism, if Obama’s people really are intentionally excluding the university in Ariel from the Jerusalem speech, this would be a very interesting move.

It would be a message of the administration’s disapproval of Israel’s settlements (which is its stated policy!) – but would also be directly undermining the Israeli government’s sovereign decisions by excluding a recognized national institution because of its location in a large settlement which most Israelis believe should remain part of Israel in any future resolution with the Palestinians. This could certainly be construed as a form of academic/cultural boycott by Obama, under Israel’s boycott law passed in July 2011.

The law, which makes it a civil offense for anyone (including non-Israelis) to call for a boycott while in Israel, applies to economic, cultural, or academic boycotts of the settlements, the State of Israel, or any of its institutions. So, a boycott of an academic institution, whether in Israel’s 1948 or 1967 borders, is included within this law.

Could the U.S. President, or his Ambassador, of the U.S. Embassy therefore potentially be sued by Israeli MKs or by settler students for effectively boycotting Israel’s first settlement university? I doubt it, but it is an excellent example of the potency of the boycott law as a draconian method intended to prevent anyone in the world – even the president of the United States – from publicly challenging Israel’s facts on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories.

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    1. Anne O'Nimmus

      You write that Ariel
      “most Israelis believe should remain part of Israel “. Since the world does not consider ANY part of the West Bank to be part of Israel, that should really be “should *become* part of Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Mairav Zonszein

      @Anne – Yes, you are right. And I thought about that when writing. But because Israel de fact controls the entire West Bank and because its accreditation of Ariel as a university and its boycott law reflect that it operates as one state from the river to the sea – I cannot help but relate to it that way.

      If I wrote that most Israelis believe Ariel “should become part of Israel,” then that would imply that it isn’t already part of it – but as far as the facts on the ground Israel has essentially annexed Ariel, so it totally is.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Danny

      Ariel is located some 20 km east of the green line, deep inside the West Bank on land that Palestinians claim for their state.

      One need only gaze at a map of the West Bank to realize that Ariel will NEVER be part of Israel UNLESS THE PALESTINIANS AGREE TO IT.

      Until they do give their agreement to it (for which I would advise them to extract significant compensation from Israel), Obama is 100% correct in his boycott of the illegal settlement called Ariel.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser


        Opinion of Palestinian Arab has been defined in 1919, has not changed since and of no interest whatsoever.

        Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      I’d like to believe he actually had the balls to do it, instead of probably just an oversight. He’ll probably cave, as usual.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Sue

      It wouldnt be a bad idea even for a liberal to file a case against the US ambassador/obama for boycotting Ariel. Better if this is done closer to his arrival or during his visit.
      It would really highlight the situation.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Ever heard of diplomatic immunity, silly?

        The most Israel could do is declare the ambassador persona non grata.

        p.s. It seems that these days “liberal” and “idiot” has became synonyms.

        Reply to Comment
        • Sue

          I know what diplomatic immunity is and that nothing is going to come of an attempt to take obama/us embassy to court, but it would definitely make headlines about freedom of speech in Israel.
          You should try using your brain to actually understand whats written and being said before passing judgements.

          Reply to Comment
    6. Arieh Zimmerman

      I hope so!

      Reply to Comment