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US raised academic boycott vote with Norwegian government, Wikileaks shows

Cables released this week by Wikileaks show that the US government raised with the Government of Norway concern over a motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions at University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (NTNU) in Norway.

A 10 November 2009 cable with the subject “NORWEGIAN UNIVERSITY TO VOTE ON BOYCOTT OF ISRAELI ACADEMICS” designated “unclassified/for official use only” explains that a US diplomat called a Norwegian counterpart to seek the Norwegian government’s views on the upcoming boycott vote. The Norwegian diplomat confirmed that the boycott measure is contrary to Norwegian state policy.

The memo also shows that the deputy chief of mission had also contacted his Israeli counterpart Aviad Ivri “to ascertain the Israeli Mission’s responses and actions to date on the threatened boycott.”

The Israeli diplomat’s response illustrates how the Israeli foreign ministry intervenes to undermine efforts in line with the 2005 Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

According to the cable:

[Ivri] said the boycott proposal had been preceded by a series of six anti-Israel lectures at [Trondheim], which began in September 2009. The series, entitled “Israel-Palestine conflict: what is research-based knowledge?” had been supported by [Trondheim] Rector Torbjoern Digernes. The Israeli Embassy in Oslo wrote a letter to Digernes, raising objections about the series, to which the rector chose to respond in blog postings. These postings generated a worldwide debate “which the rector lost,” according to Ivri. He added, “This all happened before we discovered the coming vote (at [Trondheim University] on the proposed boycott).” Ivri said another blogosphere debate over the boycott has since taken place, which, he said, “the university again lost.”

The cable also narrates how Israel raised the issue of the boycott vote with the Norwegian foreign ministry and briefed “two Norwegian newspaper editors, which Ivri said ‘resulted in wonderful articles over the weekend’ opposing the boycott. Embassy Oslo notes that [Trondheim] rector Digernes has now come out clearly and publicly condemning the proposed boycott being considered by the NTNU Board, both in an interview November 3 with local Norwegian newspaper Adressa and in comments carried Sunday November 9 as part of a full page article condemning the boycott, written by Culture/Debate editor of Aftenposten Knut Olav Aamas.”

The cable concludes with the statement “Embassy Oslo continues to follow these developments closely and stands ready to engage further if Washington signals any additional [US Government] concerns we could usefully relay to the [Government of Norway],” suggesting that the initial concern over the boycott vote came from Washington.

Obama briefed on boycott vote before accepting peace prize

The boycott vote at Trondheim was included in a briefing US President Barack Obama received upon his visit to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in late November 2009. The briefing, classified as a secret document and also released by Wikileaks this week, states:

Norwegian and Israeli officials told us this fall that Norway has now initiated steps to improve the bilateral relationship with Israel, including through scientific or other exchanges and other activities. In early November, the government publicly condemned a private effort at a university in Trondheim to boycott Israeli academics, defining the effort as contrary to academic freedom. The university’s board ultimately unanimously rejected the boycott proposal a few days later on November 12.

(It is worth noting here that in the foreward to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, President Obama traces the beginning of his political activity to his involvement in the campus divestment movement targeting the apartheid regime in South Africa.)

Norwegian right-wing leader applauds defeat of boycott vote

The Trondheim vote also came up in a meeting between Siv Jensen, leader of Norway’s right-wing Progress Party, and the US ambassador to Norway. A December 2010 cable released this week designated “unclassified/for official use only” states:

Asked for her views on the [Government of Norway’s] role in the Middle East peace process, Jensen explained that the Progress Party tried hard to provide public “balance” to the currently unbalanced picture of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict provided by the Norwegian media. She said the Progress Party stands up for Israel and its right to exist as a secure, democratic state in a non-democratic region which is hostile to it. She was glad the Red-Green coalition government spoke out publicly against the recent proposal at NTNU University in Trondheim to boycott Israeli academics.”

Jensen also expressed concern about the “unbalanced media reporting on the Middle East” in Norway. According to the cable, “The Ambassador asked if Jensen had any specific ideas for ways to encourage balance or neutral coverage of the Middle East conflict in the media or public/academic discussions in Norway. She replied, ‘if you (the U.S.) can find a way to do something about that, it would be wonderful.’”

Since the Trondheim vote in 2009, the US State Department has reiterated that partnering to combat the “delegitimization of Israel” is government policy. The memos released this week by Wikileaks show this policy in action.

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