JERUSALEM — Cambridge University officials misspoke when they announced Wednesday that renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was not attending an academic conference in Israel due to health reasons, the university said in a statement this afternoon.
Hawking, 71, told the Israelis last week that he would not be attending the fifth annual president's conference, Facing Tomorrow, in June, "based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott," the Israeli news website Haaretz reported.
This counters an earlier report by the same website that Hawking had actually canceled his appearance at the conference, to be hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres, for personal reasons, citing the ailing physicist's health.
The Guardian newspaper first reported Tuesday evening that Hawking had written a brief letter to the Israeli president saying that he had changed his mind about headling the conference, which will also celebrate Peres' 90th birthday.
The letter was not public but a statement released by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine was posted on its website. It is unclear whether Hawking gave the Committee permission to release the statement.
Organizers of the conference said the move to boycott the event was "outrageous and unwarranted."
"Israel is a democracy in which everyone can voice their opinions, whatever they may be. Boycotting is not compatible with open demcratic dialogue," said Israel Maimon, the conference chairman.
Hawking is not known for his political activism but has commented on the Israeli-Palestinian issue before.
The Week reported that Hawking told Al Jazeera in 2009 that Israel needed to engage with Hamas.
"If Israel wants peace, it will have to talk to Hamas, like Britain did with the IRA. Hamas are the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people, and cannot be ignored," he was quoted as saying.
More from GlobalPost: Boycotting Israel
The Facing Tomorrow conference attracts famous speakers and celebrities and thousands of participants each year.
This year's conference in Jerusalem will feature Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Hawking last visited Israel in 2006 as a guest of the British embassy.
"The President's Conference wishes Professor Hawking nothing but health," a spokesman for the event, Matthew Kreiger, told GlobalPost.
Noga Tarnopolsky contributed reporting from Jerusalem.