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).

Is Obama boycotting Israel's new settlement university?
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.