TEL AVIV (JTA) — Like most viewers, I was surprised neither by the prominence of Israel in Monday’s foreign policy presidential debate, nor by the jockeying of candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to reassure voters of the absence of "daylight" between the positions of the American and Israeli governments. But a bit of daylight may be just what Israelis, Americans and Palestinians need most right now.
Last week, the U.S. State Department admitted that it canceled a scholarship program intended for 12 gifted Palestinian students from Gaza after Israel refused to allow them to reach their intended studies at Palestinian universities in the West Bank. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained that after Israel made it clear that it would not grant permits for students from Gaza, the U.S. redirected the scholarships to students in the West Bank. She expressed the hope that next year "we will be able to get back in the business of helping Gazan students study in the West Bank."
Realizing that hope will mean that in the places where disagreements arise between Israeli and U.S. policymakers, the U.S. government should allow the light of day to illuminate those differences and take reasonable measures to promote the foreign policy goals it has defined.
Since 2000, Israel has prevented Palestinian students in Gaza from accessing Palestinian universities in the West Bank. The ban is sweeping, applying even to students against whom no security claim is made and who receive permits to enter Israel for other purposes. The ban applies even for students willing to travel to the West Bank via Egypt and Jordan without setting foot on Israeli soil.
Israel says the ban is necessary to maintain the "separation policy," which prevents travel between Gaza and the West Bank, especially when the intention is to stay for longer periods, as with academic studies or marriage. The ban disproportionately affects young women, who are less likely than men to travel abroad if their desired field of study isn’t offered in Gaza and opportunities in the West Bank are barred.
Notwithstanding its close ties to Israel, the U.S. government in the past has recognized publicly the importance of providing a horizon for the aspirations of young people in Gaza. When Israel banned Fulbright scholars from leaving Gaza for their studies in the United States in 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened, persuading Israel to allow students from Gaza to travel abroad, including the Fulbright scholars. In 2010, the State Department asked Israel to issue permits to three students from Gaza given scholarships to study in the West Bank as part of a flagship program inaugurated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Israel complied, and those students are still studying at West Bank universities.
But when Israel refused to grant permits to this year’s scholarship candidates, the U.S. quietly canceled the program. So Amal Ashour, who had hoped to study English literature at Birzeit University in the West Bank, is studying at the Islamic University in Gaza. Other students, thwarted by the ban, have given up their study plans altogether.
The competition between presidential candidates to prove their support for Israel may have been a factor in U.S. acquiescence to a decision by Israel that essentially frustrated an American policy goal: promoting education and the integrity of Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit. But support for Israel need not mandate squelching disagreement. Strong leadership means insisting on principles, including the principle of distinguishing between the Hamas regime in Gaza, which the U.S. and Israel define as a terrorist organization, and civilians in Gaza, especially young people, who have a right to access the Palestinian universities established for their benefit.
Many people in Israel are critical of the student ban because they believe that allowing young Palestinians to pursue their professional aspirations promotes stability as well as security for Israelis.
By the time the next academic year starts, the U.S. elections will be far behind us. I hope the administration in power will insist on the worthy public diplomacy goals that the United States has defined in the field of education, across the Middle East and including in Israel.
(Sari Bashi is the executive director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization.)