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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - British cosmologist Stephen Hawking has pulled out of a prestigious Israeli conference, giving conflicting reasons on Wednesday for his absence.
A spokesman for Cambridge University originally suggested that the wheelchair-bound scientist was snubbing the annual event, organized by President Shimon Peres, as part of an academic boycott to protest against Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.
But the university later retracted the statement, saying Hawking had withdrawn from the Israeli Presidential Conference because of ill health.
"Professor Hawking will not be attending the conference in Israel in June for health reasons. His doctors have advised against him flying," a university spokesman said in an email.
Earlier, the same spokesman reported that Hawking had approved a statement posted by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, which said he had decided to boycott the event "based upon his knowledge of Palestine".
Asked about the change, the spokesman said: "I was mistaken. It was not approved by Professor Hawking."
Hawking, who has won international recognition for his work on black holes, had been flagged as a major speaker at the conference, alongside former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
His name was quietly withdrawn from the list of participants this week and the organizers on Wednesday called his withdrawal "unjustifiable and wrong", making clear they had been told it was a political protest and not a health issue.
"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," conference chairman Israel Maimon said in a statement.
Numerous figures from the world of art and entertainment have refused to perform in Israel in recent years as part of an effort to promote the Palestinian cause, including British singer Elvis Costello and the U.S. indie rock band the Pixies.
Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 over the issue of continued Jewish settlement building on land seized in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want to create an independent state on the captured territories.
The United States is seeking to revive the negotiations.
(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon in London; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Kevin Liffey)