Stephen Hawking’s refusal of an invitation to a star-studded Israeli conference has handed pro-Palestinian activists a major victory in the campaign to isolate the Jewish state, but Israeli experts and officials are divided on whether it marks a tipping point or a one-time public relations coup.
Hawking ducked out of the annual Israeli Presidential Conference, which will draw the likes of Barbara Streisand and former President Bill Clinton this year to fete the 90th birthday of President Shimon Peres – Israel’s best known dove. Mr. Hawking’s status as an international bestselling author of books on physics and cosmology makes him one of the most prominent figures to join the boycott movement.
"He is a mega-celeb. Few people in the world don’t know who he is," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat and director general of the foreign ministry who believes Mr. Hawking’s statement will resonate with other intellectuals.
Mr. Liel believes that is likely to give momentum to the cultural boycott of Israel – a decade-long effort to isolate Israeli academics and universities, and pressure prominent artists not to visit. That said, the efforts to isolate Israel economically through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions – known as BDS – have not caught much traction. Says Mr. Liel, "Look, [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is in China" to drum up commercial ties.
Nevertheless, a longer list has ignored those appeals, such as Elton John, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Paul McCartney. Indeed, some academics say that the impact of the boycott movement has been overstated.
Bar Ilan University Political Science professor Jonathan Rhynhold, who traveled to the UK eight years ago to defeat a motion at a British university to sever ties with his school, insists that academic ties between the United Kingdom and Israel have expanded over the last decade in spite of the boycott.
He believes that the core of the boycott movement represents a small minority of public opinion because it opposes Israel’s existence. However, the movement is able to reach the mainstream of international sentiment because of the overwhelming opposition to Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank. (Indeed, the government reportedly advanced plans this week to build about 300 new housing units in the settlement of Beit El.)
"Israel’s real legitimacy problem is in the West Bank. The issue of settlements is indefensible," he says. "Therefore when we expand settlements, we give more air to the BDS to get people like Hawking."
Many Israelis see in the boycott movement a dangerous threat to delegitimize Israel’s very existence abroad. Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, said last year efforts to turn Israel into a pariah state are a strategic threat to the country on the level of missiles and rockets.
Ben Dror Yemini, a prominent centrist columnist at the Maariv newspaper, wrote that the Hawking boycott decision should be a "wake up call" to the government. "Intellectual terrorism works."
Asked to explain how Israel could counter such a campaign in a phone interview, Mr. Yemini says that the government is mistakenly content with overwhelmingly pro-Israel approval ratings in the US.
"There is a campaign and they are beating us," he says. "The most important thing are the elites. What is happening in academia and the media. There we are failing. Israel doesn’t look like it's in the game."
The University of Cambridge professor informed the office of the Israeli President on Friday that he had reconsidered "based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott," according to a statement released by the head of media relations Tim Holt.
The campaign has also polarized the political environment in Israel, as right-wing politicians have assailed dovish critics of the settlements as one in the same as the pro-Palestinian boycott movement. Two years ago, Israel's parliament passed a law enabling the filing of civil lawsuits against individuals who call for boycotts of settlement products, and sanctions for companies and non-profits that participate in boycotts. Mr. Hawking’s move is likely to strengthen that tendency, some say.
"Netanyahu wants us all to believe that Israel is threatened by BDS and 'delegitimization,'" tweeted Anshel Pfeffer, a reporter for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "Thank you Stephen Hawking for helping him."