By DANIEL ESTRIN, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — A settler body voted Tuesday to grant university status to Israel's only West Bank settlement college, overruling objections by Israel's Council on Higher Education and potentially stirring a new round of international condemnation against Israeli policies in the West Bank.
Upgrading the college in the Ariel settlement has touched off a debate inside Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has been driving a string of pro-settler measures — including a state panel's recent conclusion that Israeli settlement of the West Bank is legal.
Critics charge the upgrade is an empty symbol that could provoke world sanctions and promote the settlements, at a time when settlement construction is at the center of a three-year freeze in peace talks.
The Ariel University Center in Samaria will now be named Ariel University, said Shmuel Dovrat, a spokesman for the education council of the West Bank settlements, which approved the upgrade. He said university status means the institution will be eligible to receive public funding for the upcoming school year.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded the decision in a phone call to Ariel's mayor, Ron Nachman. "This is a day of celebration for Ariel, a day of celebration for higher education in Israel," Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. Other pro-settler lawmakers, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, supported the decision.
A number of Israeli professors previously expressed concerns that such a move would hurt Israeli academia's reputation around the world.
Palestinians also swiftly denounced the move.
"We believe that all settlements are illegal. We believe that all institutions there are illegal," said Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi. "We were hoping that the international academic community would be much more responsible and would be more aware of the implications of such provocative moves," she said.
The decision to upgrade the institution was reached by the Council for Higher Education for Judea and Samaria, a body set up as a parallel institution to Israel's Council for Higher Education. The latter objected to setting up a university in a West Bank settlement and refused to oversee such a move.
Earlier this month, the planning and budget committee of that body issued a ruling not to grant university status to the college in Ariel, maintaining there was no justification for another Israeli university when the seven existing ones were already suffering from a cash crunch.
A member of the Israel Council for Higher Education criticized the settler body's decision.
"It is inconceivable that such an essential matter be deliberated and decided by a panel in charge of only one institution of higher education out of 67 (in Israel)," newspapers quoted Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the planning and budgeting committee, as saying in a letter.
It emerged that his committee's decision was not binding. The final decision to upgrade the institution was left to the council specifically set up to oversee higher education in the West Bank — but even that is not the last word.
The settler body's ruling still requires final approval from Israel's military, which oversees legal issues in the West Bank.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz promised the school millions more dollars in funding if recognized as a university. Education Minister Gideon Saar also backed the upgrade.
Champions of the upgrade said it proved the government's commitment to holding on to the West Bank, the heartland of biblical Judaism, which Israel captured in 1967. Palestinians claim the territory, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, for their state. They consider all Israeli settlements there illegal, and most of the world community agrees.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.