LONDON/JERUSALEM (EJP)---British Foreign Minister William Hague became the first international political figure to criticise the Israel cabinet’s approval of plans to upgrade a West Bank college to university status Sunday, as he warned the move “would further entrench the presence of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.
Speaking on the eve of his first visit to Egypt since the election of new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the British minister added any move to upgrade the status of Ariel college, a political institution, would “create an additional barrier to peace with the Palestinians”.
However, earlier Sunday at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that “Ariel is an inseparable part of the State Israel and it will remain an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreements just like the settlement blocs”.
Adding that the move was designed to “strengthen higher education” in the Jewish State, rather than further assert its authority in the contested West Bank region, he concluded it was “important that there be an additional university in Israel; it is important that there be a university in Ariel”.
In a statement, Hague criticised the timing of the vote, saying it was “particularly regrettable because it comes at a time of rapidly expanding cooperation between UK and Israeli universities, and when the British government has taken a firm stand against those who seek to undermine Israel’s legitimacy by boycotting educational and cultural institutions”.
In July, British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould refuted Israeli accusations of increased anti-Semitism on British university campuses as he insisted that “in the vast majority, students have more important things to deal with than the Middle East”.
Widespread media reports of an apparent surge in anti-Semitic incidents in British academic institutions has led to a downturn in the numbers of Israeli foreign students choosing to study on British campuses, a phenomenon he described as a kind of “reverse delegitimisation”, adding that “all British universities (are) tarred with the same brush, and genuine problems of a few universities (wrongly) described as problems with them all”.
“I have been with senior Israelis who say it is not safe to defend Israel in British universities, and that is wildly exaggerated,” he asserted.
The cabinet vote also drew criticism from Israeli quarters, as the Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities described it as a “political decision...there is no need for another university in Israel. This is a step that serves the coalition and political interests and is bound to spell disaster for higher education in Israel”.
Following the vote, long-time supporter of the initiative, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said that “all attempts to thwart the move, for ideological or other reasons, will not succeed”. The final decision will rest with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has said he wants to explore the ramifications of such a move before taking any action.