The Israeli Presidential Conference that Stephen Hawking is boycotting in solidarity with the Palestinians has featured a succession of prominent Palestinian speakers among its participants over the years, including key members of the Palestinian Authority.

This year’s conference is again set to include at least one prominent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the gathering has been attended in each of its previous four years by leading Palestinian figures including top Palestinian Authority officials, negotiators, academics, and the man helming development of the first planned Palestinian city.

The British scientist’s announced decision to boycott the Jerusalem conference sponsored by Shimon Peres came just days after the Palestinian minister of health paid an official visit to the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, at the head of a delegation of Palestinian officials. The visit was designed to promote the increased employment of Palestinian medical staff workers and further cooperation between the hospital and the PA’s Ministry of Health.

The PA’s Munib al-Masri, a billionaire member of the PLC who was reportedly wooed several times to serve as PA prime minister, is listed on the Presidential Conference website as a speaker “to be confirmed” at this year’s gathering.

Last year’s Conference featured former PA minister, PLC member and peace negotiator Ziyad Abu Zayyad, who also participated in all three previous conference — in 2008, 2009 and 2011 — the website shows.

Also speaking last year was the PA’s Bashar Masri, who chairs Massar International, the developer of the first Palestinian planned city, Rawabi. Masri is also the force behind the first Palestinian equity fund, Siraj, and the chairman of the Palestine Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the chairman of the Palestinian Distribution and Logistics Services Company.

Fatah member Jibril Rajoub, 2008. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Fatah member Jibril Rajoub, 2008. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Yasser Arafat’s former national security adviser and preventive security chief Jibril Rajoub participated in the 2011 conference. Rajoub is the deputy secretary general of Fatah’s Central Committee, and head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee. Also speaking in 2011 at the conference was PA negotiator Hiba Husseini.

Another 2011 speaker was Palestinian academic Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, professor of Political Science at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who also participated in the 2009 conference.

Another Palestinian academic who spoke at the conference in 2009 was Munther Suleiman Dajani Daoudi, a former dean of the Faculty of Arts at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem who from 1996-97 was director general of the Palestinian Ministry of Economy and Trade.

Israel Maimon, chairman of the annual Presidential Conference, last week decried Hawking’s withdrawal as “outrageous and inappropriate, especially for one so fundamentally associated with the spirit of independence as a person and an academic.”

Originally, the University of Cambridge, where Hawking is the research director at the Center for Theoretical Cosmology, cited health reasons as the cause of Hawking’s cancellation. However, when presented with the full text of the scientist’s letter announcing his boycott, the university corrected its stance and apologized for the confusion.

Palestinian billionaire Munib Masri (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)

Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)

“I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank,” Hawking wrote in the letter, published on Thursday by The Guardian.

“However, I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster,” he wrote.

Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to London, called the decision “a great shame,” adding that Hawking should have promoted progress and peace instead of caving in to extremists.

On Facebook, pictures proliferated heavily criticizing Hawking’s decision, which some said was hypocritical. One meme asked Hawking — who has suffered from a motor neuron disease related to ALS for decades — to act on his beliefs and stop using the Israeli technology he’s used to talk and communicate since 1997, since the chip was created at the Intel research and design center in Israel.

An Israeli photojournalist who suffers from ALS, the same disease as Hawking, wrote a letter urging the professor, who he says was his hero, to reconsider his decision to boycott Israel. Esteban Alterman, who photographed Hawking before a lecture he gave at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2006, said the University of Cambridge scientist’s decision to cancel his participation in June’s fifth annual Presidential Conference in Jerusalem “undermines the battle… to find cures… for our common disease.”

“Facing Tomorrow” – the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference under Peres’s auspices – is scheduled for June 18-20 in Jerusalem. “As in previous years, the Conference will look at tomorrow and engage the central issues that will influence the face of our future: geopolitics, economics, society, environment, culture, identity, education, new media, and more,” the conference website says.

This year’s sessions “will give special emphasis to the human factor and its role in shaping our tomorrow. We will ask whether the quality of leadership – in all realms of human activity – can make a difference,” the website text goes on, asking, “What is the desired dynamic in relationships between people and leaders in the face of powerful processes of change? To what degree can human beings really be involved in influencing their futures?”