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An embarrassed smile crossed the face of Prof. Ester Fride as the conversation moved from her study on using cannabis in food supplements for infants, who are poor eaters, to the part-political, part-academic furor over the self-upgrading of the college in Ariel to a "university center" - where she teaches. As proof of the institution's high academic level, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) professor in the fashionable cap, who heads the department of behavioral sciences, introduces me to two doctoral students who are interning in her laboratory. One of them, who was in the direct-doctorate track at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, recently moved to the West Bank town of Ariel.

The second student, a Ph.D. candidate in the behavioral sciences from Tel Aviv University, related that his fellow students expressed their discomfort over being matched up with the Ariel institution. Academically there is no problem, he says, but some of them object to the fact that it's in the territories. It's noteworthy that the new name, as provided to the Registrar of Associations, is no longer the "College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel," but "Ariel University Center of Samaria."

It is obvious that Prof. Fride would prefer to leave the dispute with Education Minister Yuli Tamir over the school's decision to upgrade itself to the politicians. That, after all, is why Yigal Cohen-Orgad, a former Likud Knesset member and finance minister, was appointed chairman of the university center's executive committee. Cohen-Orgad, sporting an orange plastic bracelet on his arm proclaiming "A Jew does not expel another Jew," recalls that it was the Council for Higher Education (CHE) that confirmed Fride's title as associate professor and then full professor at the college: not the CHE-JS (Judea and Samaria), but the CHE-Israel, which is chaired by the minister of education.

"The obvious question," Cohen-Orgad says, "is if Ariel's lecturers are good enough to supervise 38 doctoral students and 95 M.A. students from other universities in Israel, why doesn't the institution merit the university title?"

Neither the August heat nor his agee, 70, daunt Cohen-Orgad as he takes two stairs at a time and races down trails, leading the tour. From Fride's lab we move to the center for robotics research and applications. A large group of young people from the North to Sderot in the Negev - only one of whom lives in a settlement in the area - presents a new robot that they are developing for the army, to detect smugglers' tunnels. The students in the biochemistry lab say that they are scientists and have no interest in the debate the politicians are waging over the status of the institution.

One of the students, Ephraim, who comes from a single-parent family in Petah Tikva, will leave here next year with the title of electrical and electronics engineer and will be drafted into the Israel Air Force. He is part of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) Atidim program, a kind of officer-candidate academic studies program geared to industry. Of the 404 participants in the program throughout the country, 57, or 13.8 percent, are students at Ariel. Ephraim is one of 178 students from Ethiopia who studied at Ariel last year - more than at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology combined (according to figures from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry).

Of Ariel's 9,500 students, 5 percent are Arabs from Israel. Cohen-Orgad does not deny that it's easier to be admitted to Ariel than to the Technion, but the curriculum and the examinations are no different than those at other public colleges that are recognized by the CHE.

For Einat Dayan, the university center's marketing director, who lives in a settlement in the northern West Bank, a key issue involves assisting Arab graduates to find employment. It's clear that people here prefer to focus the dispute over the college's conversion into a university on subjects such as the academic level, the quality of the teaching, the available facilities and the number of publications. The yield of the past three years - 68 books, 693 articles and 24 patents - is definitely impressive.

The vision of Ron Nachman, mayor of this town for the past 22 years, is that one day Ariel will be a university town like Princeton, New Jersey, in which life revolves around the campus and blossoms along with it. It's no accident that Nachman draws on the United States for his vision: He is a frequent participant in gatherings of the Christian right wing there and is known for his ability to raise funds from the Christian Zionists. In the meantime, he is realizing his vision in the form of welcoming posters that line the street from the entrance of the town to the commercial center. According to data of the university center, only 2,000 students and a few hundred more faculty and maintenance staff live in Ariel, constituting 15 percent of its population.

Even though it is located almost in the center of the country, Ariel evokes a drowsy, faded town from the American Midwest rather than the suburbs of the prestigious Princeton University. A wide highway less than 20 kilometers long separates Ariel from the Green Line (the pre-1967 border), near Rosh Ha'ayin and the Trans-Israel Highway. Despite its proximity to the center of Israel and its high governmental budgets, however, the biggest settlement in the depths of the northern West Bank is not taking off.

Bilingual town

To judge by the bookstore in the commercial center, Ariel is a bilingual town. The books, the saleswomen, the posters announcing specials - all speak two languages, Hebrew and Russian. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 42.5 percent of Ariel's 16,500 residents immigrated there from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party received 34.6 percent of the votes there in the last elections, 10.5 percent more than the Likud (Kadima, the party of Ehud Olmert, received 12.4 percent; the National Union-National Religious Party, 8.5 percent; and Labor, 3.9 percent).

Despite mayor Nachman's success in luring thousands of new immigrants to Ariel, the town has for years suffered from negative migration (more people moving out than moving in) and from the aging of the population. According to the CBS, from 2003-2005 the number of residents grew by only 200. Given that the natural birthrate is 8.4 per 1,000 residents, it follows that the balance of migration is negative. The rate of population growth in 2005 as compared with the previous year stood at 0.6 percent, a third of the rate in Israel overall. By comparison, the population of Ma'aleh Adumim, the largest West Bank settlement, grew by 4.3 percent that year.

The percentage of 12th-grade students in Ariel who were eligible for a matriculation certificate in 2005 was 50.7, slightly below the national average of 53.8 percent, and well below the average for Ma'aleh Adumim (63.7 percent). That same year, 42.6 percent of the high-school graduates in Ariel met the threshold requirements for entering university, equal to the national average but less than Ma'aleh Adumim (59.1 percent). Strikingly, though, the government's participation in the budget for the Ariel Municipality was NIS 3,200 per capita, as compared to NIS 1,800 for Ma'aleh Adumim, and the national average of NIS 1,750.

Nachman blames Yitzhak Rabin, who declared Ariel a "political settlement" (as opposed to what he called "security settlements"), thus bringing about the annulment of tax benefits, grants for home purchasers and enlarged mortgages, in favor of the development of the Negev and the Galilee. In a letter Nachman sent to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a month ago, he wrote that because of the uncertainty about the town's future and the non-completion of the separation fence (Ariel is completely surrounded by a fence): "There is no marketing [of homes] in Ariel and we are stuck on a dead-end road ... Ariel is aging, as seen by the fact that we were compelled to close down eight of 30 kindergartens." Nachman says that for the town to become economically and socially viable, its population must grow to 24,000 within five years.

The mayor, once a member of the Likud Knesset faction along with Olmert, complains that the number of high-school students decreased from 1,200 to 900. Probably one of his town's four elementary schools will also close. Nachman attributes the departure of young people to the government's decision to cancel incentives that made it possible for the settlements to offer high-level education at relatively low cost.

In his memoirs, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin wrote that the government adopted a well-defined security policy regarding where it was or was not right to settle. In the Golan Heights, the Jordan Rift Valley, the Jerusalem area and the Etzion Bloc, and in the Rafah Salient - yes; in the northern West Bank - no. Israel, he wrote, must not thrust Jewish settlers into the "heart of the West Bank," which is densely populated by Arabs. That type of "dramatic" settlement would be akin to showing off and "provoking the Arabs and the United States," and would be unjustified from a security point of view.

Speaking in the Knesset on October 5, 1995, ahead of the approval of the interim agreement with the Palestinians (called Oslo II), Rabin listed the settlements that would be part of Israel in a final agreement: unified Jerusalem, which would include Ma'aleh Adumim and Givat Ze'ev, along with the Etzion Bloc, Efrat and Beitar. He omitted the settlements in the northern West Bank on purpose.

President Shimon Peres, in contrast, has had a long love affair with Ariel. Peres' name, as defense minister, is on the letter of March, 1977, authorizing the settlement's establishment. On the eve of the last elections, Peres accompanied the leaders of Kadima, headed by Olmert, on a visit to Ariel. Kadima very much wanted Nachman to add his name to the group of Likud and Labor mayors who had joined the new party in order to "decorate" the list with a representative from the settlements.

Flight of the young

Nachman remained loyal to the Likud, but chose to spend Tuesday of this week, when the party's primaries were held, on an outing with the municipality's employees in the northern part of the country. The booth of Benjamin Netanyahu supporters in Ariel, situated next to the polling station, was headed by Motti Lantziano, the leader of the opposition to Nachman on the municipal council. Between filing reports to national headquarters and huddling with party members who couldn't make up their minds between Netanyahu and Moshe Feiglin, his ultra-rightwing opponent, Lantziano suggested that the reasons for the flight of the young generation could be found in the office of the mayor. There we found the acting mayor , Emanuel Yaakov, a former Border Police officer and senior official of the Israel Prisons Service. He, too, is from the Likud.

Yaakov pins hopes on the new defense minister. "We feel that a new breeze is blowing from the bureau of [Ehud] Barak," he says. "It's not like in the period of Amir Peretz - neither he nor any of his aides visited here even once. [Barak's] assistant for settlement affairs, Eitan Broshi, has already visited and promised that his door will always be open to us. We understood that it is possible to build the new neighborhood that we have been planning for a long time."

Barak did not intervene in the matter of the Ariel college's upgrade, even though as defense minister he is the definitive authority in regard to all matters pertaining to settlements, including this one. Only a handful of left-wing activists have come to the institution's campus to demonstrate against the decision to change its status, holding posters that stated "Ariel University - enlightened occupation." As in the case of the introduction of the Green Line into textbooks, here, too, the left wing is barking and the settlers continue to thumb their noses at everyone.

On the solemn occasion of the declaration of the existence of the first university in the territories, Ariel extracted from the prime minister an important political statement, a ringing blow to Peres' current plan, according to which Ariel and its university center will become part of Palestine. After Education Minister Tamir told the media that "Olmert was led astray," the Prime Minister's Bureau sent a beeper message to journalists stating: "The prime minister views the upgrading of the college, as decided on by the CHE-JS, as an important reinforcement for the settlement blocs in the West Bank and for higher education as well."