Outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday ordered the upgrade of Ariel University Center in the West Bank to a fully accredited university, a move that will make it the eighth such Israeli institution.

Once OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon signs the order, an issue of formality, it will be the first time in close to 40 years that an Israeli institute of higher learning has been accredited.

Left-wing politicians, academics and activists, as well as Palestinians and the international community, have in the past heavily criticized the push to accredit the university because it is located in the Ariel settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.

But on Monday night Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) hailed Barak’s decision, which came just hours after Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein formally recommended and reiterated his support for the move.

Netanyahu called the university’s chancellor, Yigal Cohen-Orgad, to congratulate him.

“After decades, the state has an additional university,” he said. “It further strengthens higher education in Israel.”

Earlier in the day, Weinstein penned a letter to Alon, recommending that he proceed with the process of recognizing the university, which had gone under the name of Ariel University Center of Samaria. The attorney- general advised that there was no reason to delay the accreditation process, which needed only Alon’s signature.

On Monday night Barak ordered Alon to sign the accreditation, which is in line with a July decision by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria.

Typically, university accreditation can be granted only by the Council for Higher Education, which is made up of the presidents of the seven existing universities, all of which are located in areas of the country under full Israeli sovereignty.

But the process for upgrading the Ariel University Center has been different because it is located in the West Bank and is under the auspices of the IDF and the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria.

The only remaining obstacle to the facility’s accreditation is a petition pending before the High Court of Justice to block the move. It was filed by the Council for Higher Education.

Sources have indicated that the fact that the petition was still in play left one last possible variable. While theoretically the court could still cancel the decision, in past cases it has leaned toward deferring to the government.

Another possibility is for the petitioners to amend the petition in light of the changed circumstances.

Barak’s order comes in the midst of the election season, in which right-wing opponents of Netanyahu have criticized the government’s failure to accredit the school. In addition, it was issued on Christmas Eve, when international governments are shut down.

Ariel University Center, which has 14,000 students, was first created in 1982 as a branch of Bar-Ilan University.

It became an independent college in the 1990s and was upgraded to the status of a “university center” in 2007. Only 15% of its student body lives in the West Bank; 6% of its students are Israeli Arabs.

Sa’ar expressed “satisfaction” over the decision.

“An important process has been completed during the current government term – a process I led despite numerous irrelevant objections,” he said. “Making AUC Israel’s eighth university is the right move for the country’s higher education system.”

The university said Barak’s order proved once and for all that it was equal in status and stature to the country’s other accredited universities.

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