Israeli President Rebukes Education Minister Over Criticism of University Heads

Following Bennett's criticism of Israeli university heads' refusal to allow Ariel University into the Council for Higher Education, Rivlin said: 'It's possible to love Ariel without mocking academia'

President Rivlin and Education Minister Bennett
Yossi Zamir

President Reuven Rivlin harshly criticized Education Minister Naftali Bennett Tuesday after Bennett latched out at university heads for resisting the admittance of Ariel University, which is located in the West Bank settlement, to the Israeli Council for Higher Education.

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the Council for Higher Education, Rivlin said Bennett's reference to breaking the universities' "cartel" was "a painful statement," and added: "These are the institutions that we are most proud of, and we all have a common goal -- that we have a prosperous Jewish and democratic state with an independent, outstanding apolitical higher education system that is devoid of political influence at its core."

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The Committee of University Heads’ opposition to bringing Ariel University on board stems from the belief that such a move will undermine the separation between academic institutions in Israel and those over the pre-1967 border. The blurring of the Green Line could put at risk huge research funding that is the fruit of sensitive cooperation with foreign countries and international organizations. 

Rivlin prefaced his remarks by saying that he was addressing Bennett, who is the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi party, "out of sincere and deep affection and respect." Commenting on the friction between the university heads and Bennett, Rivlin commented: "It's possible to love Ariel without mocking academia."

In his comments to the gathering to which Rivlin was referring, Bennett called on the Council for Higher Education to admit Ariel University to its ranks. "You've said that you're not a closed club? Now is the time to shift from words to action. The burden of proof is on you."

Bennett said Israeli universities had expressed strong opposition to changes that he was seeking to make in the higher education system. "To prevent competition, all along the way, every possible reason that can be imagined has been put forward," the education minister said, "including the baseless arguments about the politicization of academia and that it was being turned into a Habayit Hayehudi branch."

The Ariel University in the West Bank.
\ Moti Milrod

Bennett added: "Israeli academia isn't, hasn't been and won't be a branch of Habayit Hayehudi, but it has also ceased being the home playing field of Breaking the Silence and the extreme left," referring to the left-wing Israeli army veterans group that is involved in exposing abuses allegedly committed by the army in the West Bank.

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On Sunday, Haaretz reported that Bennett used a private law firm to provide a legal opinion about Ariel University's admission to the Council for Higher Education. The use of the private law firm went against the attorney general's guidelines, which state that only government lawyers should be used in such issues.

The Committee of University Heads, which is comprised of the heads of the eight research universities in Israel, represents the universities in their contact with government ministries. The group has expressed concern that the blurring of the distinction between universities in Israel and institutions of higher education in West Bank settlements would endanger research grants that the Israeli institutions receive, particularly from the European Union, if Ariel University became a member of the Council for Higher Education

The legal opinion issued by the law firm of Herzog Fox & Neeman stated: “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 said the chances of any university or the council being harmed by a boycott “as a result of Ariel’s membership” are “nearly nonexistent.”

In October, Bennett wrote in a letter to the university heads committee that any refusal to let Ariel University join the Israeli Council for Higher Education constitutes “discrimination and violates the proper rules of administration.” If Ariel officials are not immediately added to the council, Bennett said he would ask the attorney general for permission for state institutions “to cease cooperation” with the council.