Brown to hit back at UK lecturers' boycott on visit to Israel

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A major new academic exchange programme, which will help to undermine attempts to boycott Israeli universities, will be announced by Gordon Brown and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, tonight.

Mr Brown, on his first visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as Prime Minister, will hold talks with Mr Olmert before unveiling the Britain and Israel research and academic exchange partnership. The programme, which already has funding of more than £700,000 over five years, will strengthen opposition to the latest attempt by the British lecturers' union to ostracise Israeli academics – action that has been taken despite advice that the union's 2007 boycott call was illegal.

While the move will be welcomed in Israel, Mr Brown – who tomorrow becomes the first British prime minister to address the Knesset – is expected to criticise some Israeli policies, including the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.

The academic partnership will provide grants for joint scientific research, as well as exchanges of UK and Israeli junior and mid-career academics. While it has the backing of the two governments, and will be co-ordinated through the British Council, the funding is mainly from the private and voluntary sectors. The biggest single donation – of £100,000 per year over five years – comes from a leading UK Jewish charity, the Pears Foundation.

The British government has repeatedly opposed the boycott calls by the University and College Union, which it says are not representative of the large majority of British academia. Faced with a legal bar on implementing its 2007 call, the 2008 UCU conference this May urged members "to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions".

The vote came after Bill Rammell, the UK's Higher Education minister, who visited Israel last year to reinforce his opposition to the calls, told the conference that "academic boycotts are the complete antithesis of academic freedom".

He pointed out that the Palestinian head of East Jerusalem's Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, was opposed to a boycott: " I met Israeli academics engaged in welfare projects for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories ... The problem with boycotts is that they make the job of the progressives more difficult, and they reinforce the position of reactionaries."

British officials expect the Prime Minister – who will be accompanied by a group of UK businessmen, led by the Trade and Investment minister, Lord Jones – to follow the recent example of President Nicolas Sarkozy during his trip, rather than that of President George Bush.

Mr Bush made no mention of the Palestinians in a fulsome Knesset speech that was openly welcomed by far-right Israeli parliamentarians. By contrast, Mr Sarkozy coupled his praise for Israel with criticisms of the controversial West Bank separation barrier, and warned that East Jerusalem would have to become the capital of a future Palestinian state. Mr Brown is also expected to call for urgent progress towards two states based on 1967 borders.

The Prime Minister, who will meet leading East Jerusalem Palestinians in the city, will travel to Bethlehem to meet the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. As well as seeing the barrier at close hand, he will visit the Church of the Nativity. He will in addition hold a series of meetings with leading Israeli politicians.

The privilege of addressing the Knesset used to be reserved for foreign heads of state, but the tradition was broken earlier this year when the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was granted her request to speak to the Israeli parliament.