Israel Joins European Particle Physics Laboratory, CERN

Sticklers for geographical correctness will roll their eyes, but Israel is joining CERN, the European particle physics laboratory just west of Geneva, Switzerland. Officially, Israel has become an associate member of the lab, which is home to the world's biggest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider. After a 2-year probationary period, the nation of 7.7 million on the Asian coast of the Mediterranean Sea will, in all likelihood, become CERN's 21st member nation. Israel would be the first new member since Bulgaria joined in 1999. (Romania is in the process of joining, but for historical reasons has a 5-year probationary period.)

The move could prove controversial in some quarters, as in recent years academics in the United Kingdom and South Africa have called for boycotting collaboration with Israel in response to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But relations between Israelis and Palestinians at the laboratory have been constructive, says Eliezer Rabinovici, a theoretical physicist from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Israel's representative to the governing CERN council. Israeli physicists have been working at CERN for decades and have made a point of bringing Palestinian graduate students with them, he says. Rabinovici estimates that Israeli researchers have brought about 10 Palestinian students to the lab.

Joining CERN would give Israel a vote on the lab's governing council. Since 1991, Israel had been an "observer state," which meant its representative could attend open council meeting and address the council, but could not vote. Membership would also require Israel to contribute to CERN's annual budget of roughly 1 billion Swiss francs ($1.15 billion) in proportion to its gross domestic product. During the 2-year associate-member period, Israel will pay 25% of the full rate. Rabinovici puts that reduced rate at 3.75 million Swiss francs. Membership would also eliminate a cap on the amount of contract work Israeli companies can do with the lab, he says.

As for advancing to full membership, CERN spokesperson James Gillies says that's all but sure to happen, especially given Israeli scientists' long presence at the lab. "There's no reason to think that Israel won't become a member," he says. "Israeli physicists have been working here for a long time, and they're already pretty well integrated." Sixty-one Israeli scientists are registered users of the laboratory, he says.

Rabinovici hopes that instead of sparking resentment, Israel's joining CERN will inspire Arab nations to try to join, too. "To me, CERN is a better United Nations than the United Nations," he says. Morocco and Egypt already have contingents at CERN, Gillies notes. Full CERN membership is open to any nation.