The cabinet on Sunday approved a non-binding measure to upgrade the status of the Ariel University Center of Samaria, located in the West Bank, to that of a full-fledged university, even though a petition to block the matter is pending before the High Court of Justice.

The decision to establish Ariel University also came despite Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s request last week that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wait to bring the issue to the cabinet until after the High Court’s ruling.

Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting it was important that there be another university in Israel, and it was important that it was located in Ariel.

“Ariel is an integral part of the State of Israel and it will remain an integral part of Israel in any future arrangement, like the rest of the settlement blocs,” he said.

Netanyahu made similar comments about Gush Etzion when he visited Efrat on the first day of school on August 27.

Netanyahu said that establishing a university in Ariel was one of a number of actions the government was taking to strengthen higher education in Israel, and “this decision gives voice to our confidence in the academic level in Ariel.”

At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu spoke against the Council of Higher Education’s longstanding failure to accredit universities in Israel, including the one in Ariel. The council had not accredited a university since 1974, when the Open University was approved.

“I love to break monopolies and cartels in every sphere, and this is one of the spheres,” Netanyahu said in reference to the opposition of the heads of the other universities in the country to the move.

The prime minister, who noted that an additional university had not been established in the country for almost 40 years, said he did not think seven universities were enough for the country.

After the vote, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) noted that the population had grown three-fold in the past four decades.

“I firmly believe that the establishment of an eighth university will enhance Israel’s higher education system,” he said.

Israel’s education system must evolve to meet the needs of advanced study in Israel, he said.

Late last month the presidents of the country’s other universities, with the exception of Bar- Ilan, turned to the High Court to overturn a decision by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria to grant the Ariel school university status.

The petitioners argued that the decision had been unreasonable according to any relevant criteria and had been made by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, a body with no jurisdiction in the matter.

The cabinet decision contradicted the position of the Council of Higher Education of Israel.

They argued that the decision would have a detrimental impact, both academically and in terms of budgets, on the country’s other universities.

Since Ariel is over the Green Line, under the IDF’s authority, the signature of OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon will be needed to make the change of status final.

Sunday’s governmental declaration is significant in that it indicates government policy, but it is not considered an order to Nitzan to change the university’s status.

It is assumed that the High Court will have the final word on the matter.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak abstained from the cabinet vote, as did Agriculture Minister Orit Noked, both of the Independence Party.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu Party has been a major proponent of the move, praised the cabinet decision.

“All attempts to thwart the move, for either ideological or other reasons, will not succeed,” he said. “There is room for the establishment of another university, and there is room to place it in Ariel.”

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said that Ariel deserved to become a university, after 30 years of work on establishing one in Samaria for both ideological and educational reasons.

“Ariel University, or the Ariel University Center, is a combination of ideology of settling the land with Jews in the Land of Israel, especially in strategic areas from which we cannot retreat, and also a matter of values, and of education,” Rivlin said in an interview with Israel Radio.

The Knesset speaker added that in his opinion, opposition to establishing a university in Ariel stemmed from political reasons, and not just sectoral ones.

Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) praised the government for authorizing Ariel’s transition to a university, which he said, “does academic and moral justice to an institution that reached all the professional criteria.

“The decision relays the important message that Ariel will always remain a part of the State of Israel,” Elkin added.

MK Alex Miller (Yisrael Beytenu), co-chairman of the Knesset Caucus to turn Ariel into a University, said the move was necessary in order to strengthen settlements in Judea and Samaria and to enhance Israel’s academic status.

“This is another small but significant step and I have no doubt that Ariel University will soon be established,” Miller said.

“Narrow political interests that motivated some of the people involved in this issue have been pushed aside in favor of strengthening the academic world and stopping the brain drain from the State of Israel.”

Politicians on the Left criticized the decision to allow the Ariel University Center to become a university.

“Once again, it has been proven that the real owners of the Netanyahu government and the Likud are those who want to promote settlements,” MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) said.

“Despite the opposition of professionals that said there is no need for another research university, the government decided to establish one.”

If Netanyahu was motivated by a desire to make higher education more accessible, Plesner asked, why didn’t the government establish a university in the Negev or the Galilee.

The Kadima MK added that he hoped there would be early elections and that the government’s “unnecessary” decision would not be implemented.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said the cabinet decision indicated that settlers were Netanyahu’s priority.

“The prime minister and his ministers go out of their way to satisfy settler and ultra-Orthodox wheeler-dealers, and allocating huge percentages of the budget to them, while the rest of the public suffers,” Horowitz said.

The Hadash party criticized the government’s decision “to recognize the settlement of Ariel as a university on occupied land, to which the State of Israel has no right.”

The party called for the government to invest in higher education for the weaker sectors of society, and suggested that Netanyahu should build a university in Nazareth instead of Samaria.

“A university in Ariel does not change the fact that no academic institutions will cooperate with it,” MK Hanna Swaid (Hadash) said. “It would be better if the government was concerned with needs of young people, especially those from the periphery, and not pressure from coalition partners.”

Yonah Jeremy Bob and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.