Israel Aims to Silence Growing International Criticism with Texas A&M Deal in Nazareth

Two months ago officials from Israel and Texas made an unexpected announcement, unveiling an ambitious plan to build in Israel the first branch of an American university, at a probable cost of $100 million.

The greatest surprise of all was the location: Texas A&M University, one of the biggest in the US, is set to open its new campus in Nazareth, a town of 80,000 in the Galilee, home to the largest community of Christians in Israel and the unofficial capital of the country’s Palestinian minority.

Israel hopes to accomplish several goals from the venture: silence international criticism for its having the highest levels of poverty and inequality among the advanced economies; drive a wedge further between Palestinian Christians and Muslims; stymie efforts by Palestinians in Israel to win educational autonomy; and strike a powerful blow against mounting pressure from the movement for an academic and cultural boycott.

Since Israel’s creation more than six decades ago, Palestinian citizens, who today number 1.5 million and comprise a fifth of the total population, have complained of systematic discrimination and marginalisation in a self-declared Jewish state.

Nazareth has been campaigning to host the country’s first Arab university for 30 years, but has faced adamant opposition from successive Israeli governments, which have rejected any cultural or educational autonomy for the minority. Even in the separate school system for Palestinian citizens, Jewish officials maintain strict control over the most trivial aspects of the curriculum.

But Israel seems to be changing tack in dramatic and high-profile fashion. The government is now hurriedly preparing to overturn a law against the establishment of foreign campuses in Israel so that the university can open in Nazareth on schedule, in October 2015.

Bridge to peace?

At a ceremony on October 23 in Jerusalem, Texas governor Rick Perry and Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, signed an agreement committing Texas A&M to assist in raising funds for the new university, which has been christened the “Peace Campus”.

As its name suggests, the Nazareth branch is being sold as an initiative to help build bridges in a troubled region. Both sides are keen to highlight that the intake of students will be drawn from Israel’s Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations, as well as attracting overseas students. There is even improbable talk of Palestinians from the occupied territories or Arabs from the wider Middle East attending.

At the signing ceremony, Perry said: “We want to see the Nazareth branch as a means to preserving peace and building understanding between cultures.”

Understandably, Nazareth officials have mostly welcomed the move, not least because it will inject much-needed investment and capital into a city that has long been starved of public funds.

But as the dust settles on the deal, questions are being raised about what really lies behind this unexpected reversal of Israel’s long-standing policy towards its Palestinian minority. Is the deal as straightforwardly a good thing as it looks?

It rather depends who is answering the question.

Raja Zaatry, director of Hirak, a Nazareth-based centre campaigning for greater access for Palestinian citizens to higher education, calls the deal “not a good scenario”, and one that has “the potential to be dangerous”.

Zaatry and others’ fears relate to a strange brew of Israeli interests in the Nazareth deal: from its economic concerns as a member of the club of wealthiest nations, to its growing ties to the Christian Zionist far-right in the US, as well as its long-standing policy of internal colonialism towards the Palestinian minority.

Suspicions among Nazareth officials of Israeli bad faith have only been intensified by the fact that negotiations were conducted without their participation. Instead the deal was agreed, after talks behind closed doors, by Peres and the Israeli education minister, Shai Piron, on one side and Perry and the Texas A&M chancellor, John Sharp, on the other.

Speaking at a press conference after the signing ceremony, Perry called the Nazareth campus “an offshoot of this long-term courting of each other.” And yet the courting stage has been highly furtive.

For Nazareth’s leadership, the deal was effectively dropped into its lap unannounced – and the day after nationwide municipal elections, following a period when all the minority’s politicians had been greatly distracted by local matters.

Similarly, it appears most officials at Texas A&M were caught equally off-guard. At least some members of the university’s board of regents, which is supposed to approve and oversee major projects, found out about the impending agreement only from the local media.

Need for economic growth

Israel’s desire to get Texas involved in effectively subsiding the higher education of its Palestinian minority can probably be explained in part by pressures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Israel joined the OECD, an exclusive club of the 35 most developed economies in the world, in 2010, chiefly as a way to open the door to foreign investment and lower credit ratings.

But it has faced a series of critical OECD reports that have painted a picture of a strong economy – one bolstered by significant recent finds of natural gas in the Mediterranean – damaged by social cohesion indicators among the worst in the OECD. Israel, for example, has the OECD’s highest rate of poverty, at 20 per cent, beating even Mexico.

The Israeli right has sought to blame two communities for the country’s poor performance in these indices: the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinian minority. Both communities generally have low educational qualifications, as well as high levels of unemployment and poverty.

The OECD has warned that these factors could undermine Israel’s attractiveness to investors and its scope for long-term economic growth.

But there are very different reasons for the economic weakness of the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian minority. The former have chosen a religious lifestyle that rejects secular education and greater economic integration; in the case of the Palestinian minority, as Israeli politicians recognise – at least in private – its social and economic woes have been imposed from without.

At a meeting this month with Angel Gurria, the head of the OECD, Netanyahu promised things would change. “Creating growth is the critical thing that we are committed to.”

In that spirit, Israeli billionaire Stef Wertheimer opened the first industrial park in Nazareth in the summer, after bureaucratic hurdles placed in the way of the project for years were belatedly lifted. He plans to take advantage of the thousands of jobless Palestinian graduates who trained in hi-tech but have been unable to find Israeli companies willing to employ them.

The opening of a university in Nazareth appears to be part of the same trend, according to Zaatry. Israel wants to improve its economic credentials by tapping the potential of the Palestinian minority, without having to redirect state funds away from the Jewish population.

Christian Zionists intervene

Other aspects of the arrangement, however, have set off alarm bells, most especially the news that Texas A&M will not be providing the money directly. Fund-raising will be undertaken at least in part by US evangelicals, led by John Hagee.

Hagee is the founder of Christians United for Israel, a Christian Zionist organisation with more than a million supporters in the US that is best known for raising money to help extremist settlements in the West Bank, which are intended to destroy any chances of a peace agreement.

Christian Zionists support Israel’s Jewish population unreservedly in the hope that by encouraging all Jews to come to Israel they can advance a supposed Biblical prophecy of an end of times, in which the Messiah returns.

Given his oft-expressed disdain for Palestinians in the occupied territories, why is Hagee transforming himself into the economic and educational saviour of Palestinians in the heart of Israel?

In fact, Hagee appears to have been at the forefront of the negotiations over the Nazareth campus. He has even boasted that it was he who engineered the first meetings between Texas A&M and the Israeli leadership. Hagee is known to be close to Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Christian Zionist motivations for the deal are not hard to identify. Governor Perry has a strong evangelical following, and may be hoping that the Nazareth campus will help boost his credentials with the wider Christian Zionist movement in the US if, as expected, he seeks the Republican party’s next presidential nomination.

Sharp, Texas A&M’s Catholic chancellor and a former college roommate of Perry’s as well as long-time friend of Hagee’s, has sounded more than a little Christian Zionist in his utterances. He told the New York Times the Nazareth campus was a realisation of a passion: “I wanted a presence in Israel. I have felt a kinship with Israel.”

Jennifer Rubin, a neoconservative columnist for the Washington Post, indicated this month a possible reasoning by the US right in promoting the deal. She noted that it was revealing that Texas, “the heartland of America, especially among evangelical Christians”, rather than New York, home to many US Jews, was behind the deal.

“Americans to a greater degree than ever before identify with and support Israel, both for religious reasons and in recognition of our common defense against Islamic jihadists,” she wrote. “In Texas, as in so many other places in the United States, the idea of divesting in, boycotting or condemning the Jewish state, our best and arguably only stable ally in the region, is anathema.”

Certainly, for Israel and its supporters the establishment of a university in a Palestinian community in Israel will be a useful weapon in its arsenal against the growing pressure for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), especially on US campuses.

This is one of Zaatry’s concerns. He observed: “Israel’s reasoning for advancing a university in Nazareth is at least in part Zionist: to show how democratic Israel is and to silence its critics. That is useful in fighting BDS.”

The fight for autonomy

And then there is the matter of educational autonomy. Palestinian leaders in Israel have been lobbying for funding for a university in a Palestinian community, ideally one that offers courses in Arabic, since the early 1980s.

This has been a priority for several reasons.

The Palestinian population is heavily under-represented in Israeli higher education because of a raft of discriminatory practices, including psychometric tests and exam score-weighting that skew results towards Hebrew-speakers.

Many potential Arab students are also deterred from pursuing higher education in Israel when faced with the inevitable culture shock and educational disadvantage of entering an exclusively Hebrew-speaking environment.

In addition, the location of colleges only in Jewish communities makes finding accommodation extremely difficult for Palestinian students, both because of the practice of reserving dormitory places for former soldiers and because private landlords are averse to renting property to Palestinian citizens.

And finally, an Arab university is regarded as a vital necessity in helping young women from more conservative, especially religious, families break into higher education. Israeli officials have long been advised that such families are loath to allow daughters to live away from home when it requires moving to a Jewish community, where moral standards are seen as laxer.

As a result, only 11 per cent of the student body is from the Palestinian minority, even though Palestinian citizens account for about quarter of the age group that dominates Israeli higher education. The problem has become especially acute in recent years, with a third of all Palestinian students now opting to study abroad, usually in Jordan, rather than struggle through the many obstacles placed in their way in Israel.

Nonetheless, said Zaatry, efforts by the Palestinian leadership in Israel to make higher education more attractive have been consistently stymied by Israeli education officials.

In 2003 Elias Chacour, the Greek Catholic archbishop of the Galilee, set up a small college, Mar Elias, in his hometown of Ibilin. Spurned by the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE), Chacour, a Nobel peace prize nominee, made a deal with Indianapolis University, a private Methodist school, to become an overseas campus.

Despite this assistance, Mar Elias was constrained by funding difficulties and a series of Israeli bureaucratic restrictions. It remained a tiny college, teaching a few dozen students, until it closed in 2009, when Israel outlawed arrangements of the kind between Mar Elias and Indianapolis.

However, the core staff re-established the campus in Nazareth, this time as the independent Nazareth Academic Institute. Despite becoming the first Arab higher education institution ever to receive accreditation in Israel, the CHE immediately sought to hamper its operations.

A siege on Nazareth Institute

The Institute, which is allowed to offer just two degree courses, chemistry and communications, is the only recognised college of higher education in the Galilee denied state funding. Bishara Kattouf, one of the Institute’s directors, said: “It seemed clear that the Council [for Higher Education] refused funding because we are an Arab college. It has been a huge struggle to raise the money privately.”

It was also made a requirement of accreditation that the Institute run a compulsory course on “peace studies” for all students.

The OECD has been lobbying Israeli authorities to upgrade the Nazareth Institute’s status since 2010, without success.

That year the Institute’s president, George Knaza, admitted that the Council for Higher Education only agreed to recognise his college following a commitment that he not seek state assistance, “I guess the council hoped we’d die from lack of funding, but we have a very strong drive for life. If we want to develop and contribute to Arab society, we have to have state support. This should also be a state interest.”

In the meantime, while arguing there was no public money available for a university in Nazareth, the CHE upgraded Ariel College, making it the first university located in a settlement. Ariel is so deep inside the occupied territories that annexing its land to Israel would effectively cut the West Bank in two.

Ariel university, which the CHE has awarded a $125 million budget, has been encouraged to recruit Palestinian citizens from nearby communities inside Israel, such as Kafr Qassem, to blunt criticism that the university practises a form of apartheid by excluding Palestinians in the occupied territories from its programmes.

This summer, in an apparent effort to keep up the pressure on the Nazareth Institute, the CHE refused to award degrees to its first-ever graduating class. Kattouf said: “It’s ridiculous. We were told our financial situation is too unstable. But it is only unstable because the Council refuses to help us with funding.

“We have big ambitions for the Institute and there is a lot of local demand but without help from the state our development will always be very slow.”

Until now the CHE has also stood in the way of approving the building of a dedicated campus for the Institute. It has maintained its opposition even though a plot of land, on the lower slopes of the Mount of Precipice, is available and Munib al-Masri, a Palestinian tycoon from Nablus in the West Bank, has committed to funding the construction.

Largely overlooked in the coverage of the Texas A&M deal is the fact that the only way the US university can set up a campus in Israel is by partnering with an Israeli college, as degrees must be issued by the CHE to remain within Israeli law. Texas is therefore reliant on Nazareth Institute to make the agreement possible.

But equally the Institute needs Texas if it ever wants to solve its problems of funding, approval of a campus, and the ability to award degrees. Privately, Nazareth Institute officials admit they are in no position to resist the deal. It has been presented as a sink-or-swim offer.

Zaatry noted: “The government effectively waged a war of attrition against the Institute. It thought they wouldn’t survive long, given that they have to subsidise every student by 20,000 shekels [$5,600] a year. It has been surprised by their staying power.”

Nonetheless, there are real concerns about what will be left of the Nazareth Institute once the deal is implemented. It currently has about 120 students, compared with 58,000 at Texas A&M. After the merger, student numbers at the Nazareth campus are set to rocket to 10,000 within a decade. The suspicion is that the Nazareth Institute will be entirely subsumed, with Texas and the CHE calling the shots.

Suher Basharat, dean of students, has hinted that the new arrangement was far from the ideal solution. “We hoped and wanted to be an Israeli academic institution in every respect, not a branch [of a foreign university],” she told the Haaretz newspaper.

Dangerous downsides to deal

No one in Nazareth wants publicly to be seen opposing too strongly a project that is expected to bring to the city investment and potentially many jobs.

But there are growing suspicions that Israel may have preferred this option because, while it is likely to strengthen a small middle class within the Palestinian minority economically, it is also likely to have two significant negative repercussions. The deal will weaken the minority’s key ambition for cultural and educational autonomy, and it risks dangerously inflaming tensions and divisions along sectarian lines.

With the Texas deal secured, Israeli education officials have effectively averted the mounting pressure posed by the Nazareth Institute, as well as the Palestinian minority’s leaders and the OECD, to concede educational autonomy in the shape of an Arab university.

What the final arrangement between the Nazareth Institute and Texas will look like in practice is still far from clear. But the indications so far are that, in line with the signing ceremony, Texas and Israeli officials will reserve for themselves exclusive control. According to media reports, the language of tuition will be English, and Texas A&M will decide – presumably in conjunction with the CHE – on courses and on staff recruitment.

Having a university in Nazareth should – at least theoretically – make it easier for young Palestinian women to study, but it is unlikely to address another, more pressing concern. If Palestinian students feel deterred from higher education by the difficulties of studying in Hebrew, their second language, it is far from obvious they will be encouraged by the chance to study in their third or fourth language, English. Given that they will be competing with Israeli Jews and overseas students, they are likely to be at a distinct disadvantage.

The fear is that the Nazareth campus will do little to extend the number of Palestinian students entering higher education beyond the current narrow circle of those drawn from middle-class families already accessing higher education.

But even more disturbingly, the heavy influence of Christian Zionists on the agreement could have profound ramifications for Christian-Muslim relations in the city, which are already on a knife edge.

A history of divide and rule

Nazareth, though a holy place to Christians, is a city with a two-thirds Muslim majority – one of the legacies of the 1948 war that established Israel by dispossessing and expelling Palestinians from their historic communities. A significant number of refugees from neighbouring Muslim villages fled to Nazareth for sanctuary, overnight altering its demographic balance.

Since then, Israel has repeatedly tried to inflame tensions between the two communities, especially in Nazareth.

The most notorious flare-up occurred in the city in the late 1990s, after the government – then, as now, led by Netanyahu – made an unprecedented decision to back a provocative scheme by a local group of Muslims to build a huge mosque in a public square next to Nazareth’s main Christian holy site, the Basilica of the Annunciation.

In fact, the government never issued the necessary planning permit and later went on to destroy the mosque’s foundations. But the damage had already been done: by Easter 1999 Christians and Muslims were fighting in the streets over control of the site.

Netanyahu seems again to be in the mood to stir up tensions, apparently as part of Israel’s long-standing divide-and-rule approach to Palestinians, both in Israel and the occupied territories.

His timing seems to have been inspired by the Arab Spring, with Israel now promoting a self-serving argument that Christians in Israel should wake up to the dangers of regional persecution from Muslims.

In August Netanyahu announced a new government initiative to end the exemption of Christians from serving in the Israeli military. Until now, only the small Druze community has served, with both Muslims and Christians refusing the draft.

On this view, as Azmi Hakim, leader of the Greek Orthodox community council in Nazareth argued, Christians are encouraged to identify with and seek protection from the Jewish state. “Israel is telling young Christians that the military will arm them and teach them how to fight. For some, it can be a seductive message.”

Muslims and many Christians are deeply concerned this could be the trigger for renewed strife between them.

‘Zionising’ Palestinian Christians

As part of Netanyahu’s meddling, he appears to be encouraging greater involvement from Christian Zionists in the region.

In the summer Bishara Shilyan, the brother of the Ministry of Defence’s adviser on Christian recruitment, established a Christian-Jewish political movement in Nazareth, the first-ever such party.

Hakim believes Shilyan is receiving funds from a group of local Palestinian Christians in the town of Kafr Yasif, north-west of Nazareth, who have allied themselves to Christian Zionism. Behind them, it is widely assumed, stands US Christian Zionist money.

Allison Deger reported in Mondoweiss last month on a venture by US Christian Zionists to sell small plots of land for $1,200 a time between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, as a way to strengthen an evangelical broadcasting network based in Jerusalem and Texas.

How the Holy Land Dream Company has acquired the plots, given that 93 per cent of land in Israel is state-owned and can only be leased by Jews, is so far unclear.

Other evangelical channels have recently established themselves in Jerusalem, including God-TV. It is working closely with the Jewish National Fund, a semi-governmental agency, to plant a forest in the Negev to displace Palestinian Bedouin from their ancestral lands.

Is the Christian Zionist team behind the Peace Campus in Nazareth – Pastor Hagee, Governor Perry and Chancellor Sharp – playing a tangential role in these developments?

One possibility is that Netanyahu and the Israeli right may hope to promote closer involvement by US evangelicals in the lives of the Palestinian Christian community in Israel. That could be potentially useful in undermining the revival of Palestinian nationalism inside Israel that followed the collapse of the Oslo Accords from 2000 onwards.

Palestinian Christians have traditionally been at the forefront of the Palestinian national movement, both in Israel and the occupied territories. They have thereby discredited claims from Israel that it stands on the fault line of a clash of civilisations between a Christian-Jewish west and a Muslim east.

The outlines of a possible Israeli strategy in response may be emerging, one that requires both strengthening the role of Christian Zionists in the Holy Land – with a university campus in the heartland of the Christian population in Israel – and demanding military service from local Christians.

That way, Netanyahu and the right may hope they can start to erode local Christians’ identification as Palestinians and generate new sources of conflict between the Christian and Muslim populations.

The “Zionisation” of local Christians would be a major achievement for the Israeli right. Not least it would clear the path for US evangelicals to claim they represent the true interests of Christians in the Holy Land.

Possibly even more importantly, it would isolate overseas churches that have traditionally shown solidarity with the Palestinians. Some of them are starting to take a lead in the promotion of the BDS campaign and what Israel characterises as a campaign of “delegitimisation” – another strong reason for Israel to want to recruit local Palestinian Christians to its cause.

The Nazareth campus may mark a change of tactic by Israel. But it seems the same cynical strategy is alive and kicking.

•  Article first appeared in Mondoweiss

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.