Like most decisions by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, the authorization to recognize the college in Ariel as a university stems from coalition considerations and the desire to hold on to cabinet seats at any cost. When Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave the green light to implement an improper cabinet decision from 2005, he finally showed that Labor's excuse for joining the government - to moderate the extremists - was false. Barak is the one taking the government's most dangerous steps.

Granting university status to Judea and Samaria College is an unfortunate mistake for which Israel's entire system of public higher education will pay a heavy price. For years, the Council for Higher Education resisted enormous pressure from the heads of the college in Ariel and staunchly opposed the change. Israel does not need another university, and if it did, the college in Ariel is not the most worthy of gaining that status. "This is pretention with nothing to back it up," the former deputy chairman of the Council for Higher Education, Prof. Yitzhak Galnoor, told Haaretz yesterday. "I propose that the army study there and the defense minister be the president of the university."

This ironic statement expresses the absurdity of the change. The college's academic level has never been officially measured. Even if it were a praiseworthy institution with its research work touted far and wide, Barak's directive to the GOC Central Command to recognize the college as a "university center" - which backs up the 2008 declaration by the college itself - reflects the complete contempt in which the settlements, supported by Israeli governments, hold the law and the country's citizens. Barak's instruction, like the 2005 cabinet decision, is no more than a political step taken by the government (not by academia) and implemented by the army. It callously circumvents the higher education system, which will be damaged worldwide and badly hurt by the redivision of the shrunken budgetary pie.

Israeli scientists and intellectuals have suffered in recent years due to a feeling of estrangement among important academic institutions worldwide; there have also been boycotts and ostracism. No doubt this attitude will worsen when Israel develops a large university town in the territories at a time when it is bound to a construction freeze. Israeli academia will become even more the leper, and Israel's intellectual and scientific life will be forced into a ghetto; the damage to the system and all of society is hard to gauge.

This dangerous folly is now at the doorstep of the Council for Higher Education - the only institution that can stop it. Without its approval, Ariel cannot receive university funding and recognition of its degrees. The council must wage an unremitting professional and civil struggle for the future of higher education, for what remains of Israel's legitimacy in the world, and against pushing Israeli society to the destructive margins of the land of the settlers of Judea.