* Becomes first Associate member of European body
* Arab, Asian Islamic countries involved in research
* CERN "politically neutral ground for scientific research"
By Robert Evans
GENEVA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Israel, targeted by an academic boycott campaign in some Western and developing countries, on Friday signed up to become the first Associate member of the CERN "Big Bang" particle physics research centre probing the origins of the universe.
Under an agreement formalised at the 20-nation CERN's headquarters on the borders of France and Switzerland near Geneva, in just over two years' time Israel will almost certainly become the first non-European full member of the centre, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.
"It is a vital part of our mission to build bridges between nations. This agreement enriches us scientifically and is an important step in that direction," CERN's Director General Rolf Heuer, a German physicist, told the signing ceremony.
Eliezer Rabonivici, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the agreement was a recognition of Israel's scientific and technological contribution to CERN over the years. "The Israeli scientific community is looking forward to the continuation of the joint adventure," he added.
"It is part of our mandate to provide politically neutral ground for peaceful scientific cooperation," said CERN spokesman James Gillies when asked if the boycott campaign -- aimed at cutting ties with Israeli academic institutions over the country's policies in the Palestinian territories it controls - could be turned against the organisation.
The campaign, launched in 2002 by two British Jewish biologists, has won considerable support among teachers and students in Europe, North America and South Africa, but has also met widespread opposition from academics and researchers who say politics should be kept out of science.
Several Arab and Muslim Asian countries - including Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Republic -- take part in CERN programmes and Turkey is one of the seven observers who can take part in meetings of the centre's steering Council. Palestinian researchers also take part in its work.
In a news release on the agreement, CERN said Israel had supported Palestinian students studying and working there, as well as sending mixed Israeli-Palestinian contingents to its summer study programme.
Israel became an observer - alongside the United States, Russia India, and Japan among others - in 1991 and was granted special observer status in 2009. It will become a full Associate as soon as its parliament, the Knesset, has ratified the accord. Two years later, it will qualify for full membership. (Reporting by Robert Evans)