Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun berated US President Barack Obama on Israel Radio Wednesday morning for choosing to address the Israeli public at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center rather than the Knesset and for inviting students from all universities except the West Bank-based Ariel University to attend the speech.
The US president’s advisers rejected the Knesset as a possible location for his speech, saying it was too much of a political symbol. The US Embassy in Tel Aviv, reportedly in charge of sending out the highly coveted invitations (some 2,000 of them), offered the country’s universities a chance to select students to attend Obama’s centerpiece public speech, set for Jerusalem on March 21.
“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?” Cohen asked rhetorically.
Chetboun expressed his dissatisfaction in a letter to US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, but has yet to receive a response.
The head of Ariel University’s student union, Shay Shahaf, also had harsh words for the US president.
“We were pretty shocked by the discrimination and by the manner in which Ariel University was given up on,” Shahaf told Yedioth Ahronoth.
The student union is waiting to see if the US administration is going to change its mind. If not, students plan to attend the address anyway, but in protest. “In either case, we’ll have a presence there.”
“This has created a great deal of unrest among the student body,” Shahaf added. “No one thought it would come to this, particularly from such an unexpected event.”
Ariel college was upgraded to a university in December following a fierce domestic debate. It became the first Israeli institution located in the West Bank accorded such standing, prompting international criticism.
The US Embassy in Tel Aviv is said to be in charge of inviting approximately 2,000 civilians and 300 members of the press, making it possible that the decision was a local one rather than a reflection of the administration’s wishes.
Both the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the White House have yet to comment on the matter.
The embassy also launched a Facebook campaign that gives the Israeli public a chance to attend the US president’s address. To enter the contest, Facebook users must simply “like” the official embassy page, and write a “original and creative” explanation as to why they, of all the thousands of fans, should be awarded one of 20 seats up for grabs.
Obama is scheduled to land in Israel on Wednesday, March 20, and depart two days later. His trip is also to include high-level meetings, tours, and trips to Ramallah and Bethlehem. He may also address smaller groups of activists and students, but these sessions will be closed to the media and will be held at as-yet undisclosed locations.