President Obama is due to visit Israel on March 20 where, the next day, he is to deliver an address in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’uma (International Convention Center) to Israeli university students. According to reports, students from Israeli universities received invitations to hear the president’s speech in Jerusalem – with the conspicuous exception of Ariel University. Ariel University was recognized last year as Israel’s eighth full-fledged state university. It has a student body of 14,000, is one of the country’s most distinguished universities, and its Chairman is former Israeli Defense Minister and Foreign Minister, Moshe Arens.
Israeli MK Yoni Chetboun (Jewish Home party) described the exclusion of the West Bank institution “puzzling” and inconsistent. On the one hand the president announces his intentions are not political, he said, “but in the same breath he makes a political decision, boycotting Ariel University … if the president invites students of all Israeli universities, he should also invite representatives from Ariel University, which is recognized by the Israeli government as legitimate academic institution.” Shai Gill, Chairman of Ariel University’s student council said that the students were “shocked by [Obama’s] discrimination” and added that this decision has provoked hostility among students and promised their presence in the vicinity of the event (‘MK slams Obama for excluding Ariel U. from speech,’ Jerusalem Post, March 13, 2013).
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has now denied a report that Ariel students were being barred but indirectly confirmed that they had not been invited to President Obama’s Jerusalem speech when an embassy official stated that only students from academic institutions with partnerships or joint programs with the embassy had been invited (‘U.S. embassy denies Obama boycott of Ariel University students,’ Jewish Telegraphic Agency, March 14, 2013).
Ariel University is located in Ariel, an Israeli town of 22,000 inhabitants in Samaria, has over 600 Arab students, as well as the largest number of Ethiopian university students in all of Israel. Even when former leftwing Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, in 2000 and 2008 respectively, offered more than 90% of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority (PA) as part of a proposed peace settlement, Ariel was part of the territory to be retained by Israel. It is part of a majority consensus in Israel that Ariel will remain part of Israel under any possible future agreement with the Palestinian Arabs.
Additionally, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and a number of Knesset members passed messages to the White House saying they would much prefer if President Obama’s speech took place in the Knesset, but this has been rejected in the White House.
ZOA National President Morton A. Klein said, “We are surprised and disappointed that President Obama declined to address the Knesset. The stated official reason is that President Obama wishes to make a less overtly political speech and to address more directly the Israeli public, especially Israeli youth.
“Quite apart from the fact that one of the best ways to address the Israeli public is to deliver a televised speech to its democratically elected representatives in the Knesset, there is something deeply divisive and politicized in President Obama’s decision to exclude from his audience Jewish and Arab students from Ariel University.
“The excuse for the non-invitation to Ariel students offered by a U.S. embassy official is obviously lame and nonsensical. Whether or not an Israeli university has a partnership or joint program with the embassy in no way precludes the embassy from inviting Ariel students if it wishes to do so. Now that the matter has been raised publicly, this standing non-invitation is almost certainly deliberate.
“If President Obama states he wants to speak to Israeli university students, that, of course, has to include Ariel University students. It is entirely irrelevant whether Ariel University has any relationship with the embassy. Would President Obama have excluded Hebrew University students or Tel Aviv University students if those universities lacked a relationship with the embassy?
“One would have thought that a desire to speak directly to the Israeli public would have included an eagerness to speak to all sections of that public, including Israelis who live and study in Ariel.
“If the failure to invite Ariel students is merely an innocent oversight, we urge President Obama to immediately rectify this and to instruct the U.S embassy, which reportedly has been dispatching invitations to the President’s forthcoming speech, to invite Ariel students.”