The U.S. Embassy in Israel declined to invite students from a controversial university in the West Bank from attending President Barack Obama's speech in Jerusalem, prompting those students to promise a protest of the president's appearance.
After the Times of Israel reported that students from all major Israeli universities except Ariel University, based in a hotly contested West Bank settlement, were invited to Obama's March 21 address at a Jerusalem convention center, Israeli lawmakers and Ariel University students criticized the president and pledged to show up at the speech anyway. The school was upgraded to full university status last year, becoming the first Israeli major university in the West Bank and sparking a firestorm of international criticism.
"We were pretty shocked by the discrimination and by the manner in which Ariel University was given up on," Shay Shahaf, the head of the university's student union, told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, promising to protest. "In either case, we'll have a presence there."
A U.S. embassy official confirmed to The Cable that the embassy rather than the White House was in charge of the invite list but said that invitations were only extended to educational institutions that were partners in joint programs with the embassy. Ariel University is not a embassy partner, the official explained.
"We're working with institutions that are partners in joint programs with the U.S. embassy and not even all of our partners were included because we have a limited number of invitations," the official said.
Jewish Home Minister Yoni Chetboun wrote to Shapiro complaining about the snub but has not gotten any response.
"He [Obama] chose not to speak before the Knesset, saying he wasn't coming to Israel for political reasons, but at the same time decided he's meeting with students from the universities, except for Ariel University, which is a political decision. It's exclusionary," Chetboun's spokesman Ohad Cohen told The Times of Israel. "Israel decided that Ariel is a full-fledged university. So does Obama not recognize Israel's decisions?"
Some in Washington see the incident as an unforced error by the Obama administration that could cause unnecessary controversy during his first trip to Israel as president.
"This is discrimination plain and simple, and unfortunately it is also counterproductive," said Noah Pollak, executive director of the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel, which has run advertisements denouncing Obama's Israel policies. "The controversy threatens to overshadow the rest of his trip and make it about delegitimizing Israeli students because of where they go to school. Anyone who wants President Obama's trip to be successful should be asking him to correct this mistake."