‘Academic boycott hits Israel hard in the pocketbook’

The Israeli economy is in dire straits as more and more European universities no longer want to cooperate with the country, the independent economic think tank Rise Israel writes in a report to the Israeli government.

According to the authors, the sanctions will cause “serious damage” to the innovation capacity of Israeli technology companies, for example in the field of artificial intelligence. They describe the negative sentiment in Europe as “extremely worrying.”

The think tank is particularly concerned about growing calls to exclude Israel from the so-called Horizon Europe programme. Thanks to the European Commission’s grant programme, European universities and companies are working together on scientific breakthroughs. Israel was allowed to join Horizon Europe at the end of 2021, a decision that was also widely criticised at the time, due to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Financial hangover

Several European universities no longer want to work on such joint projects as long as Israeli institutions are involved, because these institutions, in turn, are often intertwined with the military and the government. Flemish and Spanish universities, among others, have cancelled collaborations with Israeli partners. The University of Barcelona even asked that Israel be excluded from the programme altogether.

That would be a financial hangover for Israel, warns Rise Israel. In recent years, the country has received more than €600 million in grants from Horizon Europe, and another €1.28 billion from its predecessor Horizon 2020. These investments have continued even after the attacks of 7 October: since then, the European Union has approved another 130 projects in which Israeli institutions are represented. Total value: around €126 million.

All that money from Brussels acts as a kind of buffer for the crisis in our own country, Rise writes. Since the war, Israeli tech companies have found it harder to attract foreign investment. And, the think tank continues, “the war in Gaza will make things worse for Israel.” [Israëlische] “The Government will not be able to increase spending on research for the time being.”

MEPs want a boycott

Meanwhile, pressure is also mounting in Brussels. Last month, seventeen MEPs called for Israel’s participation in the Horizon Europe programme to be frozen, now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, is suspected of crimes against humanity.

“This would send a strong signal to the global community that the European Union is serious about its commitment to human rights,” write the authors of the letter, including Dutch parliamentarians Tineke Strik and Kim van Sparrentak (both GroenLinks).

In response, European Research Commissioner Iliana Ivanova said that all parties to Horizon Europe are already bound by ethical rules and that it is difficult to change cooperation agreements in the meantime. “Terminating cooperation purely on the grounds of nationality would be inappropriate and would constitute discrimination.” What is possible: assessing each collaborative project individually as to its content.

Not all Horizon Europe projects contribute to the oppression of the Palestinian population. Much research is carried out in the areas of health, climate change or food production. However, there are also joint projects in the field of combating terrorism, where the risk of human rights violations is more likely.

Empty shell

Although Israel has not yet been expelled from Horizon Europe, Rise Israel still sees things bleak. “Any sanctions against Israel, whether de jure or de facto, will severely damage the innovation ecosystem.” In other words: even if Israel remains part of Horizon Europe on paper, in practice it will only be an empty shell if European universities withdraw from collaborative projects on their own.

According to Rise, Israeli institutions would do well to continue to engage with their European counterparts, but they should be careful of their tone. “We should not discuss war, because we are unlikely to convince them of that, but rather discuss the important contribution Israel has made to improving health, sustainability and prosperity in Europe and the world.”

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