Education Minister Dubiously Uses Private Law Firm to Advance West Bank University's Status

According to the attorney general’s guidelines, only government lawyers should be used in an issue like whether Ariel University should be allowed into the Council for Higher Education

File photo: Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the inauguration of Ariel University's medical school, August 19, 2018.
Meged Gozani

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has used a private law firm to provide an opinion on a government matter, a move that appears to breach the attorney general’s guidelines.

Instructions published a few years ago say that in unusual cases where outside legal advice is used, the ministry’s legal team must provide supervision.

The matter in question concerns Ariel University’s admission to the Council for Higher Education. Bennett, citing a legal opinion commissioned by the university from the law firm Herzog Fox & Neeman, says the university’s admission to the council would not impede Israeli universities’ receiving of research grants.

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“You cannot base official policy on an opinion paid for by an interested party,” a senior official in higher education said. “That’s not serious. What does it mean by saying ‘a risk that is nearly nonexistent?’”

The official said that in soliciting the private opinion, “someone was trying to bypass” the council’s legal advisers.

The opinion was sought by the university’s chancellor, Yigal Cohen-Orgad. It says that ties between Israeli universities and the council with Ariel University “do not contradict any written agreements and understandings with the European Union.”

The council’s legal adviser was not involved in the issue, and Bennett’s spokesman, Matan Sidi, said “the Council for Higher Education did not discuss the paper, nor was it asked to. We were shown a legal opinion prepared by a serious law firm, and we used it as a basis.”

Sidi added that the council’s lawyers “don’t handle matters of discrimination or proper administration,” and that “there is no reason to submit [the opinion] to the council’s legal adviser.”

Officials say the council has not addressed other questions relating to Ariel’s admission to the Council for Higher Education.

In a letter, Bennett has threatened the council that if Ariel is not permitted to join, he will take steps to stop cooperating with the panel.

Two weeks ago, Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter said that “according to an opinion presented to me, it seems that the acceptance of Ariel University by the Council for Higher Education would not affect the eligibility or ability of Israeli universities to receive grant funds from international funds, particularly European, for research conducted inside the Green Line” – in Israel proper, not the West Bank.

Bennett says that any refusal to let Ariel join the council constitutes “discrimination and violates the proper rules of administration.” He says that if Ariel officials are not immediately added to the council, he will ask the attorney general for permission for state institutions “to cease cooperation” with the panel.

Israel’s eight universities belong to the council, which represents them to government ministries. Contrary to Bennett’s position, the council fears that anything that challenges the distinction between universities and colleges in Israel proper and those in the West Bank could put international research money at risk, especially from the European Union.

According to the opinion by Herzog Fox & Neeman, “To the best of our understanding, the addition of Ariel cannot be expected to block allocations from the European Union budget to Israel’s other universities.” It says the chances of any university or the council being stung by a boycott “as a result of Ariel’s membership” is “nearly nonexistent.”