Netanyahu, Ambassador Friedman Ink Deal Expanding Scientific Cooperation to Settlements

Sources say Sheldon Adelson pressured U.S. administration to sign the deal ahead of the U.S. election ■ U.S. Secretary of Defense arriving in Israel on Thursday

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U.S Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign agreements at a ceremony at Ariel University, October 28, 2020.
U.S Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign agreements at a ceremony at Ariel University, October 28, 2020.Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman signed an agreement on Wednesday extending the United States and Israel's scientific cooperation to apply to Israeli institutions in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The move further legitimizes Israeli settlement in the West Bank. 

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said the deal will "remove geographic restrictions" on scientific cooperation agreements, which had previously only been applied to universities within the Green Line. "These geographic restrictions are no longer consistent with U.S. policy," the statement said.

The signing ceremony is taking place at the only such institution, Ariel University, in the settlement of the same name in the northern West Bank. 

"We are righting an old wrong," Friedman said at the ceremony, "and strengthening the bonds between our countries."

Friedman said that in the 1970's, the United States and Israel signed three agreements on science, technology and agriculture that excluded land that came under Israeli control in 1967.

"I was disappointed that three agreements devoted to academic and scientific growth were limited by political restrictions," he said, and because the U.S. President Donald Trump administration does not see the settlement enterprise as illegal under international law, Friedman said, he worked to remove this geographic limitation, which he called an "anachronism." 

Speaking after Friedman, Netanyahu said that signing the agreements at Ariel University is of "huge significance." He assailed "naysayers" who said that Trump's policy changes, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capitol, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, would destroy chances of peace. 

"This is an important victory over everyone who seeks to delegitimize anything Israeli over 67 lines," Netanyahu said. Turning to "those malevolent boycotters," he added, "you are wrong and you will fail, because we are resolved to build our lives and our ancestral homeland and to never be uprooted from here again."

Efrat Regional Council Leader Oded Revivi said, "Eight years after Obama boycotted students from Ariel, President Trump is righting the injustice," referring to the agreement as "a huge step for peace and co-existence."

Most of the foreign funding for scientific in Israel comes from the European Union, which excludes settlements. 

Ariel University Rector Prof. Albert Pinhasov told Haaretz that the agreement signed Wednesday will allow university researchers to work with U.S. NGOs and submit requests for joint research grants between the two countries.

"Until now, our scientists, and especially young ones who returned from post-docs abroad, had a hard time keeping their research relationships with their peers in the United States," Pinhasov said.   

Netanyahu and Friedman attending the ceremony at Ariel University, West Bank, October 28, 2020.
Netanyahu and Friedman attending the ceremony at Ariel University, West Bank, October 28, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

He added that Ariel University researchers are prevented from applying for European grants. "We are asking that they make a distinction between the political element and the academic-research aspect. Our staff members want to research, and academia was, in my opinion, their bridge to peace. Academia is not a political place, but an opportunity for cooperation." 

Pinhasov added that the university does not yet know when the agreement will go into effect, as they have only seen the outline. "Now we'll need to understand the details," he said.

Ahead of the ceremony, Friedman said "Just as we have seen tremendous regional progress on the Abraham Accords [between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain], we are also seeing the tangible benefits of President Trump’s policies for bilateral cooperation with Israel."

Sources involved in the agreement said, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to Ariel University and President Donald Trump, pressured the American administration to hold the ceremony ahead of the U.S. election on Tuesday.

Also ahead of the election, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will arrive in Israel on Thursday and meet with Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Meanwhile, several settler leaders said they would not attend a meeting with Netanyahu after the ceremony, because two council heads were not invited.

The two are David Elhayani, the Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman, and Yossi Dagan, the Samaria Regional Council chief. Elhayani has drawn fire for saying U.S. President Donald Trump "is no friend of Israel" after the release of the so-called Deal of the Century, while Dagan accused Netanyahu last August of "deceiving an entire people" with his decision not to annex the West Bank.

Ariel University opened its medical school last year, which was funded in large part by Adelson. Administrators had planned to open the school in 2018, but legal issues caused delays.

In April 2019, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by two academics against the establishment of the medical school, based on the claim that the approval “casts a heavy shadow on the decision making process in higher education.” The petition was submitted after it emerged that a member of the committee that looked into approving the new faculty, Prof. Jonathan Halevy, had received an offer to serve as head of the university’s board of governors six months earlier.

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