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Fearing boycott, Israeli academics warn against accrediting West Bank school

The Israeli higher education committee for the West Bank approved accreditation of Ariel University Center today. One university president warns the move endangers Israel's 'next Nobel prize.'

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Though the South African boycott provoked an angry response from the Israeli government, one former top official expressed support. Alon Liel, who served as Israeli ambassador to South Africa and foreign ministry director general, wrote in a commentary this month for South Africa's Business Day that he supported the South African decision as a "small but symbolic" protest "that holds a mirror up to Israeli society."

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While a few companies, such as lockmaker Mul-T-Lock Ltd., have relocated from West Bank industrial zones to factories inside Israel, the trade boycott efforts have had a negligible impact on the overall economy, say Israeli officials.

"In the big picture it hasn't yet impacted Israel," says Paul Hirschhorn, a spokesman for the foreign ministry. "Culturally and economically, Israel continues to be a remarkably successful venture."

Academic community wrings its hands 

The same can be said for Israel's seven public universities, many of which enjoy world-class reputations. Last month, the presidents of those institutions published an open letter to the government suggesting that accrediting AUC would cannibalize already strained higher education budgets.

An eighth university "would lead to a mortal injury to the higher education system in Israel," the letter read. "There is no real need for an additional university in Israel."

A petition of 1,000 academics was more political, warning of an end to international academic cooperation.

"There is already a selective academic boycott in place: Researchers at Ariel are unable to submit grant requests at many funds around the world.… The identification of the entire Israeli academy with the settlement policy will put it in danger."

Supporters of the school in Ariel, however, say the opposition is politically motivated. "It's the leftists that are pulling the strings," says Hila Vaknin, a marketing student from Jerusalem, on a break between classes at AUC.

Talking about the decision and the resistance by Israeli academics sends Eldad Halachmi, AUC's gregarious vice president for development, into a frustrated rant.

On Mr. Halachmi's desk is an architectural rendition of a modern Jewish cultural center and synagogue for prospective donors. Just outside his office, a crane looms over the building site of a future library. Uncertainty about AUC's status is hurting his fundraising effort, he complains.

He alleges that many of the Israeli academics who warn of a boycott have a political ax to grind against Ariel and support a boycott of the settlements among Israelis.

"They are riding this horse because they know it's very PC in the world … that everything over the Green Line is a terrible thing," Halachmi says, referring to the 1949 cease-fire line separating the West Bank and Israel. According to officials, 85 percent of the 13,000 students hail from inside Israel.

Halachmi says that AUC participates in "dozens, if not hundreds" of instances of academic collaboration. But it is ineligible for money from Israel-US funds that promote joint research because of its location in a Jewish settlement, considered illegal by most of the international community.

Earlier this month, a funding committee of Israel's Committee on Higher Education ruled that a decision on accreditation should be postponed a year to allow time to determine whether there's a need in Israel for an eighth university.

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