Barak: West Bank College to Be Recognized as Israeli University

Announcement comes five years after government decision and heated debates about upgraded status.

Labor Party leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday said he would recognize a five-year-old government decision to formally upgrade the status of Ariel college to a university.

Barak's announcement comes after increased tension about the matter between his Labor party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu faction.

Yisrael Beiteinu threatened more than one week ago that it would oppose any bill or legislation proposed by Labor party Knesset members unless Barak recognized the college's upgraded status.

Despite opposition from higher education authorities and Labor ministers, the government in May 2005 approved the founding of two new Israeli universities. Under new legislation, Ariel's college would become a university, while six smaller colleges in northern Israel would unite to become the University of the Galilee.

The controversial ruling was passed only after a heated debate in the Knesset that exposed deep divisions between Likud and Labor ministers.

The prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, strongly supported plans to upgrade Ariel.

"I attribute great importance to making Ariel college a university," he had said. "The plans are in accordance with the position of this government, which sees the strengthening the settlements as one of its aims." Despite Sharon's backing, the decision was never implemented, however, in part because of opposition from higher education authorities.

In August 2007 the college angered education officials by declaring itself a university, calling itself the 'Ariel University Center of Samaria.'

The education minister at the time, Yuli Tamir, said the college was "misleading the public" with its re-branding, which she denounced as a fraud.

"There are colleges and there are universities. There is no such thing as a 'university center,'" Tamir said.

Israeli universities are awarded far higher state budgets than colleges and unlike their junior counterparts are entitled to award doctorate degrees.

Tamir and Shlomo Grossman, then chairman of the government's planning and budgetary committee, ruled that despite the name change, funds to Ariel's college would not increase.

In another blow to the aspiring West Bank 'university,' the committee also recommended a legal inquiry into the right by any institution to use the title.

Right-wing lawmakers hailed the move on Wednesday as validation of Ariel University's academic achievements.

National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari offered his congratulations, though he challenged Lieberman to do more to halt the government's settlement freeze.

Likud MK Tzipi Hotoveli said Ariel University is deserving of the title due to its academic standing.

Conversely, Balad MK Jamal Zahalka called the government's decision "a violation of international law."