By GREGORY KATZ and ARON HELLERAssociated Press
LONDON (AP) - Physicist Stephen Hawking has dropped plans to attend a major conference in Israel in June, prompting criticism Wednesday from Israeli officials who believe he has joined a boycott organized to protest Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
The world-famous scientist had earlier agreed to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, hosted by President Shimon Peres, in late June, but has now changed his mind.
Tim Holt, media director at the University of Cambridge spokesman, said Hawking's decision was based strictly on health concerns.
"For health reasons, his doctors said he should not be flying at the moment so he's decided not to attend," said Holt. "He is 71 years old. He's fine, but he has to be sensible about what he can do."
A University of Cambridge statement released earlier Wednesday cited "personal reasons" for his decision. Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
In Israel, however, Hawking's decision was viewed as an indication of support for a boycott. Organizers said an email from Hawking cited the boycott as a reason not to attend.
Conference chairman Israel Maimon said Hawking's decision was "unjustifiable and wrong."
"The academic boycott against Israel is in our view outrageous and improper, certainly for someone for whom the spirit of liberty lies at the basis of his human and academic mission," Maimon said, calling the imposition of a boycott incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.
He noted that former world leaders including Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair plan to attend the conference.
The boycott campaign is led by Palestinians, Israeli leftists and other supporters who oppose Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and are attuned to the power of celebrity in this age.
It has had some success, deterring a string of famous entertainers from performing. Elvis Costello and the Pixies canceled concerts, as well as the British dance band Klaxon and the Gorillaz Sound System. Israel has also faced occasional boycotts of its academics, unions and in some cases commercial products
Hawking's decision was hailed by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine as support for its goal of severing academics' connections with Israel.
"This is his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there," the committee said on its website.
Heller reported from Jerusalem.
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