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Settlement hopes to be crowned with ‘Ariel university of Samaria’

This post contains 1) news report from AP, 2) Ynet news report of opposition, 3) comment from Daily Beast

Israel to decide on settlement university

Associated Press/Al Arabiya
June 9, 2012

In the fraught atmosphere of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, an approaching decision on whether to award coveted university status to a college has taken on powerful political overtones.

For critics of Israel’s policy of settling Jews in the West Bank, the upgrade of the “Ariel University Center of Samaria” into a permanent university would be a strong signal of what they say is creeping annexation of the hilly territory.

For its supporters, upgrading the institution will be a crowning jewel of the government’s commitment to holding the West Bank, the heartland of biblical Judaism, captured by Israel along with east Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

“Most dramatically, this has a symbolic significance that no settlement has,” said political scientist Yaron Ezrahi of Hebrew University. “It’s an attempt to legitimize the occupation.”

Of Israel’s more than 120 Jewish settlements, Ariel holds special significance.

With 19,000 people, it is one of the largest settlements built on occupied territory claimed by the Palestinians. Positioned deep in the West Bank, its removal is seen as essential to the viability of a future Palestinian state, since annexing it to Israel would also take a significant wedge of land with it to connect with Israel proper.

But its huge population and developed infrastructure, including a theater, sports complex and four-lane highway, would make it extraordinarily difficult to uproot. An upgrade to the college would give a symbolic depth to the feeling of permanence.

“Ariel is here to stay. There’s no reason to treat it differently from Tel Aviv,” said settler leader Naftali Bennett. “Long ago, it should have become a university.”

A government committee headed by the education minister is expected to decide next month on the upgrade.

The Ariel institution has operated for 30 years in some form, ultimately growing into a college of some 12,500 students. It is open to all Israeli citizens, including Arabs. But like other Israeli universities, it is closed to the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

The school was given temporary university status five years ago, according to school officials, with a July 15, 2012, deadline to make a decision on giving it permanent recognition. In the meantime, its faculty was tasked with proving that it could produce university-worthy education.

Permanent status would give the institution access to additional state funding and allow more collaborative work with other Israeli universities. Most critically, though, it would be a symbolic victory in the school’s struggle for recognition.

Israel Education Minister Gideon Saar favors the upgrade, according to his spokeswoman, Lital Apter-Yotzer. She said he would support the application as long as it meets academic requirements and doesn’t take away existing funding for the country’s other universities.

“From the academic point of view, we are eligible to get permanent status as a university,” Yigal Cohen-Orgad, the school’s dean, said proudly.

But the decision will not rest on academic considerations alone: An upgrade would likely trigger international condemnations and enrage the Palestinians.

Most of the international community considers the settlements illegitimate and a chief obstacle to Palestinian statehood.

“Any step of this kind would be a further consolidation of illegal settlements,” said Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib.

Settlements are at the heart of the current impasse in Mideast peace efforts. Talks broke down more than three years ago, and the Palestinians have refused to return to negotiations while Israel continues expanding its settlements. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians.

Joining Israeli academia would put the Ariel school in some prominent company. All but one of Israel’s eight universities rank in the world’s top 500, according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities, a respected ranking service.

But some, including professors at other Israeli universities, fear it will tarnish Israeli academia and perhaps jeopardize international funding, staff and research exchanges.

Pro-Palestinian activists say if the institution is recognized, they will push harder than ever for a boycott of Israeli academia by firmly demonstrating links between the country’s military occupation and academia.

The symbolism of a university, the activists say, is more powerful than a mere college.

“It will open the doors even more widely to the general boycott of Israel and all its institutions that are part of its system of oppression,” said Omar Bargouti, a Palestinian activist in the global movement to promote boycotts and sanctions against Israel.

The movement’s chief concrete success so far was to influence the University of Johannesburg in South Africa to cut its institutional agreements to Israel’s Ben Gurion University in March 2011. It has also promoted boycott debates onto Western campuses.

A petition condemning the upgrade plans drew some 1,000 signatures from Israeli academics, said Nir Gov, associate professor of chemical physics at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, and a sharp critic of Israel’s policies against Palestinians.

Academics fear tens of millions of dollars of European and U.S. research grants might be at stake if they are compelled to work with a future Ariel University.

They cite the case of Israeli theater companies that were forced to perform in Ariel’s year-old theater. At that time, hundreds of artists protested against the move, saying they did not agree with Israel’s settlement policy. The culture minister responded by threatening to cut the funds of any theater company that did not comply.

The European Union will not fund projects based out of West Bank settlements, said EU spokesman David Kriss. A U.S. spokesperson did not comment.

Even if there is no official boycott, Israeli academics may be less likely to be accepted at international conferences, their scholarly articles could be rejected, and so could their applications for sabbaticals in prestigious universities abroad, said Menahem Klein, political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

“Of course it will not happen overnight,” Klein said. “It might take a few years, but … it may lead to very bad consequences for Israeli universities. This will make a connection between academia and occupation.”


Leftist MKs against university in ‘heart of territories’

Debate on whether to grant university status to education center in Ariel heating up. Meretz leader says move will lead to academic boycott, while rightist lawmaker claims institution gained ‘international recognition’

By Tomer Velmer, Ynet news
June 6, 2012

Israeli politicians and educators remain at odds on whether to grant university status to the Ariel University Center in the West Bank, Ynet reported Tuesday.

Professor Moshe Mandelbaum of the Planning and Budgeting Committee in the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, which is expected to rule on the matter next month, told Ynet the number of universities in Israel should be increased “in correlation with the growth of the Israeli economy.

“It’s a budgetary issue, not a political one,” he said.

Another Council member said he expects it would rule in favor of granting university status to the Ariel University Center.

Meanwhile, Knesset Member Dov Khenin (Hadash) sent a letter to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who heads the Council, saying the initiative is driven by “political considerations.”

He said the decision-making process must be “transparent,” otherwise it would be “undemocratic and unacceptable.”

A senior official in the higher education system who is affiliated with the Left predicted that the institution in Ariel will be given university status.

“The settlers lost in Ulpana, but apparently they will gain a new university,” he said.

MK Alex Miller (Yisrael Beitenu), who heads the Education Committee, said the coalition agreement between his party and the ruling Likud party calls for granting university status to the institution in Ariel. “The center in Ariel met all the academic criteria (for recognition as a university) and has gained international recognition as a leading academic institution,” he told Ynet. “The issue should not be influenced by political considerations.”

Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On, on her part, said “those who want to turn the (center in Ariel) into a university are single-handedly bringing an academic boycott on us. The attempt to give the center in Ariel university status constitutes blatant political intervention in Israeli academia.

“This is a cynical decision aimed at appeasing the settlers in Likud’s Central Committee – it has nothing to do with academic achievements,” she claimed.

“There is no need for another university in the heart of the territories. This is just another attempt to hinder any possibility of reaching a two-state solution.”

The Committee of University Heads in Israel acknowledged that the decision on whether to grant the center in Ariel university status is in the Council’s hands, but said “we believe that at this time there is no room for another research university in Israel.”

The temporary recognition granted to the institution as a university center will expire in July.


Ariel versus Academia

By Dov Waxman, The Daily Beast
June 11, 2012

Israeli academia is about to suffer a major blow. Within the next few weeks, Israel’s Council for Higher Education, which oversees Israeli universities and colleges, is expected to approve the upgrade of Ariel College to full university status. This would be a big victory for right-wing political pressure and for the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, and it would greatly damage higher education in Israel.

Now thirty years old, Ariel College—or “Ariel University Center of Samaria” as it now likes to call itself—is located in the large settlement of Ariel, deep inside the West Bank (some thirteen miles east of the Green Line). Originally part of Bar-Ilan University, for the past seven years the college has been independent and has sought full university status, which would give it more prestige, more students, and above all, access to more government funding. Although both the Sharon and Olmert governments supported upgrading the status of Ariel College, the Council for Higher Education steadfastly refused to consent. The Council believed there was no need to establish another Israeli research university; heads of Israel’s existing universities also shared the self-interested desire to avoid having to share more of what little funds are available for higher education in Israel.

Many Israeli professors also oppose upgrading Ariel College, and a thousand of them recently signed a petition against it. Their petition stated: “The establishment of the college in the settlement Ariel, and its planned upgrade to a university, is part of the settlements effort…The establishment of an academic institution for a controversial political purpose is highly problematic.” The petition also noted that following such a move, “there will be an inevitable identification between the entire Israeli academic community and the policy of settlements and occupation… Identifying the entire Israeli academia with the policy of settlements will place it in grave danger.”

Both objections are well-founded. From the outset, the effort to upgrade Ariel College has been driven primarily by political, rather than academic, considerations. Whatever the academic merits of Ariel College, making it a university is a thinly veiled attempt to strengthen the settlement of Ariel and legitimize it in the eyes of the Israeli public. It is really about trying to make the settlement of Ariel a permanent part of Israel. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly stated this motive: He once declared that a university in Ariel would ensure that the settlement “will forever remain part of the State of Israel.”

Israeli academics are also right to be worried about the potential repercussions for them if an Israeli university is established in the occupied West Bank. This will indeed tarnish the image of Israeli academia, and it will help strengthen the ongoing international campaign to boycott Israeli universities. Calls for a boycott of Israeli academia will undoubtedly intensify. It will become harder to counter these calls, because the boycotters will credibly claim that Israeli academia is complicit in the occupation of Palestinian territory.

Giving Ariel College full university status will not only damage higher education in Israel, it will also damage the increasingly slim possibility for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The last time that Israel and the Palestinians seriously tried to negotiate a peace agreement—the Olmert-Abbas talks in 2008—the future status of Ariel was one of the most disputed issues in the negotiations. Establishing a university in Ariel will send a message to the Palestinians and to the international community that Israel is not serious about resuming the peace process with the Palestinians. Foreign observers will infer that Israel has no intention to withdraw from the heart of the West Bank and allow a contiguous and viable Palestinian state to be established. This will further undermine Palestinian confidence in Israel’s peaceful intentions and make peace less likely. It doesn’t help that, since Palestinians cannot even enter the settlement of Ariel, no Palestinians will be able to study at the university.

One can only hope that when it meets in the next few weeks, the Council for Higher Education will resist the right-wing pressure to change Ariel College’s status. Unfortunately, given the inordinate political influence that the settlers and their supporters enjoy in today’s Israel—as demonstrated by Netanyahu’s desperate attempt to placate them after the removal of the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El—such a hope is probably futile.

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