JERUSALEM -- A settler body voted Tuesday to grant university status to Israel's only West Bank settlement college, overruling objections by Israel's Council on Higher Education and potentially stirring a new round of international condemnation against Israeli policies in the West Bank.
Upgrading the college in the Ariel settlement has touched off a debate inside Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has been driving a string of pro-settler measures -- including a state panel's recent conclusion that Israeli settlement of the West Bank is legal.
Critics charge the upgrade is an empty symbol that could provoke world sanctions and promote the settlements, at a time when settlement construction is at the center of a three-year freeze in peace talks.
The Ariel University Center in Samaria will now be named Ariel University, said Shmuel Dovrat, a spokesman for the education council of the West Bank settlements, which approved the upgrade. He said university status means the institution will be eligible to receive public funding for the upcoming school year.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded the decision in a phone call to Ariel's mayor, Ron Nachman. "This is a day of celebration for Ariel, a day of celebration for higher education in Israel," Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. Other pro-settler lawmakers, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, supported the decision. A number of Israeli professors previously expressed concerns that such a move would hurt Israeli academia's reputation around the world.
Palestinians also swiftly denounced the move.