Relations between Israel and one of its closest European allies dipped this week when Britain joined Washington and the European Union in trying to stave off a unilateral strike by Israel against Iran's nuclear program. But it isn't just Iran that is straining Israeli-British ties.
In less-noticed comments, Britain’s foreign secretary spoke out in unusually strong terms against the Israeli cabinet’s decision to approve the upgrade of Ariel University Center – officially a college, at present – to full-fledged university, the first in a settlement in the West Bank.
William Hague said that the decision “would lead to the creation of Israel’s first university beyond the Green Line, in a settlement illegal under international law. It would further entrench the presence of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and create an additional barrier to peace with the Palestinians.”
In Britain, home to some of the Palestinians’ most active international support groups, campaigners have been ramping up pressure each year for a boycott of Israeli universities. Now, they believe the current focus on Ariel University Center could boost their efforts.
“I think it makes a difference that Ariel is part of the university system, because of the idea of an academic going to the occupied territories, going to what is effectively a settlement built on stolen land and essentially giving a conference paper behind barbed wire,” says John Chalcraft of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), a group of UK-based academics who support calls for a boycott of Israeli institutions.
“I think that will make a larger constituency feel more uncomfortable and complicit if they try to do business in that context.”
Dr. Chalcraft, a professor in history and politics at the London School of Economics, maintains that the boycott campaign, which has been the focus of heated debate at annual conferences of Britain's largest trade union representing lecturers and academics, has been gaining steady support. Chalcraft compares it to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement that targeted apartheid-era South Africa from the 1960s onwards.
But David Hirsh, a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmith's College, University of London, says that moves towards a boycott do not enjoy broad support among his peers or the general public. Rather, he says, the boycott movement's effect is to teach union activists, students, and young people that Israel should be treated “as one of the greatest threats on the planet.”
Mr. Hirsh adds that the boycott campaign, which he has vigorously opposed, may be making the situation worse. He notes that the Israeli cabinet of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the first to endorse the idea that Ariel should become a university, did so not long after one of the major boycott debates in Britain. “So it was done almost as if it was an Israeli answer to the boycott campaign," he argues.
He also criticizes both the Israeli settler movement and the British boycott campaign for falsely equating the school with Israel's established, certified universities.
"The right-wing Israeli pro-settler side kind of mirrors the idea of the British anti-Zionist side in as much as both are pretending that this is a university and both are pretending that there is no significant difference between Ariel [University Center] and, for example, Tel Aviv University."
By blurring the distinction, Hirsh argues, the settler movement bolsters the school as a legitimate West Bank institution, while the boycott campaign uses the school to discredit Israel's university system broadly.
"In my view there is a very significant difference" between Ariel University Center and the rest of Israeli academia, he says, and that difference undermines both sides' positions.
Implementation of the upgrade for Ariel University Center depends on Israel's high court ruling on a petition opposing the move, which has been brought by a body representing existing Israeli universities. They are concerned that state funds will be diverted away from their institutions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told cabinet colleagues that the settlement of Ariel, where the school is located, "is an inseparable part of Israel and it will remain [so] in any future [peace] agreement just like the other settlement blocs."
In his statement, Britain Foreign Secretary Hague added that the move was “particularly regrettable because it comes at a time of rapidly expanding co-operation between UK and Israeli universities, and when the British Government has taken a firm stand against those who seek to undermine Israel’s legitimacy by boycotting educational and cultural institutions.”