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Israeli gov't votes to upgrade disputed West Bank college

(Xinhua)

14:10, September 10, 2012

JERUSALEM, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) -- The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday decided to officially recognize as a full-fledged university an Israeli college in the West Bank, after a long and contentious legal and academic battle.

However, the non-binding decision to upgrade the Ariel University Center will not, in and of itself, change the institution's status, due to an opposing petition currently under legal review in the Supreme Court.

"Ariel is an integral part of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet session. "Seven universities is not enough and it's important to have one in Ariel."

Israeli Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who brought up the issue to the cabinet's discussion, said the college's upgrade is a matter of "national importance."

The Ariel University Center was founded 30 years ago, in the mainly secular West Bank city of Ariel -- home to around 18,000 citizens.

The status of Ariel is one of the most controversial topics within Israeli society, as some consider it a full-blown Israeli city, while others deem it a settlement.

Last month, after years of deliberation and controversy, the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (a body separate from the official Israeli Council for Higher Education -- CHE) voted in support of the upgrade. Their vote contradicted the official recommendation of the CHE not to upgrade the college.

In addition, the final authorization must be made by the Israeli army's Central Command.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak was supposed to have the final call on the issue. However, several right-wing ministers, including Sa' ar, tried to bypass his authority in the matter.

Barak, who decided to delay his decision regarding the institution until the Supreme Court rules, abstained from Sunday's vote.

The petition, filed last month by the Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities, said the decision to authorize the new status is "seriously flawed" and tainted by a conflict of interests.

It further argued that the local council cannot weight in all the needed considerations for the approval of an eighth university since it cannot see the overall picture of the higher education system in Israel.

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