AG, West Bank education body put Ariel University medical school back on track

Mandelblit deems earlier ruling to nix program by sub-body of Council for Higher Education is non-binding, paving way for project to once again be green-lighted

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Ariel University in the West Bank (CC-BY Michael Jacobson/Wikipedia)
Ariel University in the West Bank (CC-BY Michael Jacobson/Wikipedia)

The Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria voted on Wednesday to approve the establishment of a medical school at Ariel University in the northern West Bank, hours after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled that an earlier reversal on the matter had not been binding.

Mandeblit determined that the Council had the right decide on whether or not to establish the medical school, and did not need to follow a decision by a separate subcommittee last week not to approve the department’s establishment.

However, a final decision will be up to the main Council for Higher Education, which is slated to absorb the Judea and Samaria branch later this month. An official with knowledge of the deliberations told The Times of Israel that the main council will likely green-light the project when it next convenes. Mandelblit gave the latter committee two months to reach a decision.

Last week, the Attorney General’s Office ordered that the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education — which in a July 2018 ballot granted authorization to the medical school — hold a re-vote after two of its members who supported the project were deemed to have been in a conflict of interest.

The ruling came after the Haaretz daily revealed that a member of the council’s budgeting committee, Dr. Rivka Wadmany-Shauman, had voted in favor of establishing the medical school while the university was considering hiring her for a teaching position. A fellow committee member, Zvi Hauser, was also booted from the committee as he is running as a candidate for the Knesset on the Israel Resilience party’s slate.

In their re-vote last Thursday, the shrunken panel voted 3-2 to reverse the July decision to approve the medical school.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a Channel 12 News conference in Jerusalem on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The project’s fate was then placed at the doorstep of Mandelblit, who was asked to rule whether the issue was one of budgeting or planning. If it was the former, than the budgeting committee’s updated decision would be binding and the medical school would not be able to open its doors. If the issue was one of planning, however, then the committee’s vote would only be seen as a recommendation, and a final ruling would need to be made by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria followed by the main Council for Higher Education. The attorney general determined in his decision released Wednesday that the establishment of the medical school was an issue of planning.

The latest development was seen as a triumph for Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who had claimed the establishment of the settlement medical school as one of his most significant accomplishments in the role.

After the budgeting committee reversed its decision last week, Bennett said it was “unbelievable” how it “was placing sticks in the wheels of the establishment of a new medical school at Ariel.” He called the committee, which falls under his ministry and is made up of representatives from the country’s other universities, an “academic cartel.”

On Wednesday, however, he appeared in much better spirits, praising the attorney general’s decision as well as the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria’s subsequent vote as “a huge victory for medicine in Israel!”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the ceremony for a new Faculty of Medicine at Ariel University in the West Bank, on August 19, 2018. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

The medical school had been seen as a significant boost for the standing of Ariel University, which fought for years to be recognized as a university because of its West Bank location.

The medical school has been heavily funded by the school’s US-based billionaire financiers, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who were honored at a ceremony in August marking the inauguration of the new program. It is slated to welcome its first class of 70 aspiring doctors next fall. If it gains final approval, the medical school would be the sixth such program in Israel.

Ariel University has faced a boycott from various academics abroad and its professors have even lamented discrimination by other universities within Israel, who they claim refuse to recognize its legitimacy.

Bennett was instrumental in the Knesset’s passing of legislation in February that places Israeli colleges and universities in the West Bank on par with institutions located inside Israel proper and under the auspices of the Council for Higher Education. It meant the dissolving of the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, which had been tasked with supervising Israeli universities in the West Bank.

Opponents in the opposition said the legislation further normalized Israel’s presence well beyond the Green Line in territory that Palestinians hope will be part of their future state.

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