Here are some facts about Ariel University, in the city of Ariel in the West Bank. It has a Special Emergency Research Fund to allow 100 students from Ukraine to study for their Master’s and Ph.D. degrees and do post-doctoral training, offering full tuition, a place to live, and space in a lab. It has nearly 17,000 students and nearly 500 faculty, working in a medical school and 20 research centers on everything from cancer research to brain science to energy research, radiation sources and applications, and homeland security. It has the largest number of students from Israel’s Ethiopian community of any university in Israel. It has hundreds of Israeli Arab students.
What it will not have, due to a new decision by the Biden administration, is support of any kind for its scientific and technological research from any U.S. government agency. As the Times of Israel reported,
The United States confirmed on Monday that it had decided to cut support to scientific and technology research in Israeli institutions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights, returning to a long-running US policy that had been reversed under former US president Donald Trump.
New guidance to US government agencies advises that “engaging in bilateral scientific and technological cooperation with Israel in geographic areas which came under the administration of Israel after 1967 and which remain subject to final-status negotiations is inconsistent with US foreign policy…."
This is a return to a previous policy overturned in the Trump administration. This decision can best be explained by assuming that the administration believes that anything done between January 20, 2017 and January 20, 2021 was prima facie wrong and must be reversed—because additional explanations are hard to understand.
First, no one can point to any actual harm done by U.S. support for research at Ariel University or anywhere else in the covered territory. That is because there is no harm, and perhaps there is much good. I’d love to hear administration officials explain to an Israeli Arab or an Ethiopian-origin Israeli or a Ukrainian scholarship student why it was absolutely necessary that funds that might be supporting their research project had to be eliminated.
Second, the argument that supporting research in those locations (East Jerusalem, the Golan, and the West Bank) is "inconsistent with US foreign policy" and thus absolutely foreclosed because those are “final status issues” is, to be polite, unpersuasive. Suppose there is, eventually, a negotiation that places Ariel in the new state of Palestine (an unrealistic notion to be sure, indeed an impossible one, but play along). How does it harm Palestinians and their new state that there have been and are great research projects underway at that University? Or is it that the Biden administration thinks the existence of such projects makes it less likely that in a negotiation, Israel would be willing to give up the city of Ariel and Ariel University? That is also, to use a nice diplomatic term once again, unpersuasive. The city and the university are facts, are Israeli, and will thrive with or without those U.S.-funded projects.
On April 14, 2004 President George W. Bush wrote a famous letter to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon—one that both houses of Congress then endorsed by huge majority votes. It included these lines:
In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
Ariel and its university are indeed “new realities on the ground,” and denying them as the new Biden policy wishes to do is folly. No Palestinian gains by such a U.S. stance.
But there is a third aspect of the Biden administration decision that deserves mention: its insistence that the fate of the Golan and East Jerusalem are unsettled. Are negotiations to give the Golan back to Bashar al-Assad desirable now or in any foreseeable future? Does the United States favor the division of Jerusalem, returning the city to its pre-1967 state? It seems ridiculous as a matter of diplomacy to hold that a positive answer (however wrong it may be) to those questions cannot be given by the administration if a U.S. grant supports cancer research in Ariel.
But that is the position the United States is now taking. Such a position is not mandatory nor is it sensible, so the decision on research grants is something else. It seems like a gratuitous swipe at Israel, or perhaps more accurately Israel’s government—like the refusal to invite Israel’s prime minister to visit the White House. None of these moves helps achieve the administration’s apparent goals (see my blog item here about the refusal to invite Netanyahu). For that at least, I suppose many Israelis will be grateful.