Israel’s Defense Ministry has given a green light to expand a college in the West Bank, a move aimed at strengthening Israeli ties to a settlement located deep within territory that Palestinians claim as part of a future state.
Upgrading the status of the "Ariel University Center" would promote an ambitious plan to expand the campus and student body of 11,000. Some 18,000 mostly secular Israelis live in Ariel, a sprawling bedroom community located 12 miles east of the 1967 Green Line.
The decision could add another point of friction with the Obama administration, which pushed Israel to adopt a 10-month freeze in new settlement construction last year.
"An Israeli university in the West Bank is a political statement that, 'We are here, and we are going to stay here,' " says Assaf Meydani, a lecturer at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s school of government.
"It's saying, 'We are not afraid to say that we have a university in Judea and Samaria,' " he adds, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.
Ariel is the fourth-largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Many Israelis consider it one of several so-called population blocs slated for future annexation; critics say such a move would effectively bisect a Palestinian state.
Established in the mid-1990s
The Ariel college, or AUC, was established with a few hundred students in the mid-1990s, and today draws the vast majority of its students from inside Israel proper. Its leadership has ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. The decision would make it the ninth university in Israel.
The institution aspires to double its enrollment by the end of the decade and invest as much as $200 million to triple the size of its campus. A neighborhood for staff is being planned in Ariel.
"They are trying to position Ariel as a normal Israeli city. The university is one of the tools they are using to attract people from the outside," said Dror Etkes, an expert on settlement construction formerly with Peace Now. "An Israeli can drive to Ariel without even noticing they are in the West Bank."
The recent authorization from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of the dovish Labor Party, was considered one of the last political and bureaucratic hurdles to the move, which was hailed by the far-right Yisrael Beytenu party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
"The government gave a strong and important shot of encouragement for the settlements in Judea and Samaria, and the Israeli academy," said Yisrael Beitenu parliament member and Ariel resident Alex Miller in a statement.
The institution is controversial abroad. Last September, the Spanish government disqualified a team of researchers from AUC who were named as finalists in competition, sponsored by the local ministry of housing, to design a solar house. School officials say AUC is ineligible to get public money from abroad for its research.
Hussam Khader, a Palestinian legislator, says establishing a university in Ariel would undermine the standing of Palesitinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"This means they consider Ariel and the West Bank as part of Israel," he says. "This proves that Israel will never accept the solution of two states."