The governing council of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, voted Thursday in favor of Israel’s application to become a full member of the world’s leading atomic research center.
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Changing Israel's status from associate to full member requires a unanimous vote of the CERN Council, which comprises representatives of all 20 existing member states. Israel had widely been expected to receive the requisite support, which would make it the first non-European country to become a full member in CERN.
The formal signing ceremony will take place next month.
Israel joined the organization, which is located in Switzerland, as an observer in 1991. In September 2011, it became an associate member, a status that is usually followed relatively quickly by full membership. Nevertheless, none of the people involved in Israel’s application were prepared to comment on Wednesday, and they warned against premature celebrations, fearing that publicity could hinder Israel’s acceptance.
Any public mention of Israel's application in recent months has drawn concern from representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the Science and Technology Ministry and the Israeli scientific community. The orders to those involved in the application process were clear: no public statements, no press releases and no conversations with journalists; complete radio silence until the operation is over.
“After our hard, complex work, we’re afraid to upset the applecart,” one person told Haaretz a month ago, after the paper’s English edition published an article on Israel’s application.
The upgrade to full membership has great significance. As an observer and associate member, Israel could participate in experiments conducted at CERN’s particle accelerator, which is the largest in the world, and participate in open meetings of the CERN Council. Israeli scientists in fact participated in several CERN experiments, including the one that discovered the Higgs boson last year, and were also involved in setting up ATLAS, one of the two general-purpose detectors that allow particles created by collisions in the Large Hadron Collider to be identified. Currently, a few dozen Israelis are working at CERN, most of them doctoral students.
Until now, however, Israel has had no power to influence the institute’s research priorities and only limited access to CERN tenders. Full membership will change all that.
“Full membership in an organization like this is a very impressive calling card, and it reflects Israel’s high scientific and technological level,” said Ilana Levi, head of the Science Ministry’s foreign relations department. “But at the same time, it also has many other advantages. Acceptance as a full member would grant greater access to the most advanced and unique research labs and facilities, of a kind that Israel has neither the ability nor any reason to build in Israel. It would also enable Israeli industry to participate in all of CERN’s tenders, something that was very limited as an associate member.”
Full membership also comes with a cost: Israel would have to contribute some 50 million shekels (about $14.3 million) a year to the institute, four times what it pays as an associate member. The cost would be split between five agencies: the science, economy, education, and finance ministries, and the Prime Minister’s Office.
Prof. Eilam Gross of the Weizmann Institute’s particle physics department, who is a member of the CERN team and headed the research group that searched for the Higgs boson in the ATLAS experiment, noted that the benefits of full membership wouldn’t only be scientific.
“First of all, it has a political effect,” he said. “It’s a great thing for a country like Israel to see its flag waving over the European nuclear research lab, and it would give an enormous push, especially in the unsympathetic atmosphere that exists today. Science ought to cross borders, and I think it’s very important that the scientific community not repudiate us, because the road to peace goes through science. We cooperate with scientists from enemy countries, and we do it gladly.”
"This is a day of pride and satisfaction for Israeli science," Foreign Minister, Avigdor Leiberman said. "The decision is also an impressive achievement of Israeli diplomacy and Foreign Ministry personnel who have led this effort for many years. We also wish to thank the European members of the organization that supported Israel's acceptance in the council.
Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin joined Lieberman and congratulated "the Israeli scientific community and Foreign Ministry diplomats who worked very hard in order to achieve this." He added: "The decision reached in Geneva is a sign of appreciation of Israeli science and an excellent example of scientific cooperation with Europe, without any political conditions."
Israel's long road to confirmation
CERN, an international research center, was established in 1954 by 12 European countries. Over the years, eight other countries became members, most recently Bulgaria, which became its 20th member in 1999. Romania is also a candidate for membership and Serbia is an associate member.
Israel’s longstanding ties to CERN have become increasingly close over the years.
“Relations between us (Israel) and CERN have been like a couple who lives together without getting married," said Hebrew University Prof. Eliezer Rabinovich, Israel's representative on CERN's council. "Every time one side wanted to make it official, the other remembered that it didn’t want that. In the past, Israel had said that [full membership] was too expensive, and when Israel wanted to join, at CERN they claimed it was complicated politically.”
The idea of Israel joining CERN goes as far back as the 1970s. Mostly, however, it was Prof. Yuval Ne’eman, a physicist and former president of Tel Aviv University and Israel's first science minister, who had an interest in the issue.
“For many, many years, Israel was an unofficial partner in experiments when the organization didn’t care that it had hangers-on,” Rabinovich, who also heads the National Council for High Energy Physics at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, said.
The National Council for High Energy Physics was established by Ne'eman in 1982 in an attempt to strengthen ties with CERN and make them official.
"It took us time to build the appropriate scientific infrastructure. The American particle accelerator competed with the large CERN accelerator, and in the end [the Americans] lost out," Rabinovich explained. CERN's major advantage, he added, was "not only in its accelerator's power, but that all of the knowledge and equipment are concentrated in one place."
But it was only in the late 1980s, when CERN’s administration decided to collect fees from guest countries, a first step was made to make the ties official. In 1991, after Israel agreed to make a financial contribution to CERN, mostly for equipment purchases, the country was accepted as an observer state. The amount at the time was about 2 million Swiss francs. In return, Israeli representatives gained access to meetings of CERN’s council of member states, but were not granted voting or veto rights.
Israel was offered a full member state status at CERN after delegation of representatives from the major European nuclear research center visited Israel. However, it soon became clear that Israel had a long and circuitous road ahead of it, since it lacked the necessary support for conformation.
Between 2008 and 2011, Israel's Foreign Ministry, which at the time had Tzipi Livni at its helm, worked to convince CERN member countries that opposed full Israeli membership.