The Jewish National Fund Must Be Made Transparent

The JNF is an effective cash box for the government, and it is no wonder that cabinet ministers hastened to block Livni’s proposal to subject it to the state comptroller’s scrutiny.

The JNF central planning ceremony in 2012.
The JNF central planning ceremony in 2012. Courtesy JNF

The Basic Law: The State Comptroller stipulates that the properties of an audited body have to do with its objectives (whether they are private or public), its affiliation to the state authorities, the scope of its governmental powers and others.

The Jewish National Fund was set up, like many other national institutions, in pre-state days to prepare for what was to become the State of Israel. Like them it has continued operating to this day and within the definition of the law.

The JNF owns 13 percent of the regulated lands in Israel, and wields governmental authorities like the power to confiscate lands (purchasing them for public needs). It has signed deals with the state including land swaps and money transfers estimated in the billions of shekels. In 1961 the JNF signed a pact with the state stipulating that JNF lands would be passed to the Israel Land Authority, which would pass the income from the lease-holders and tenants back to the JNF.

After the establishment of Israel, the state sold the JNF lands it had confiscated from Palestinians. In 2009 the state and the JNF signed an “agreement on principles” aimed at giving those who leased JNF lands full ownership of them. The agreement included land swaps and financial compensation for the JNF, estimated at 6 billion shekels. These deals were carried out without transparency or external supervision, although they involved state lands and were carried out with public funds.

The JNF, which is financed mainly by income from land sales as well as by contributions, is believed to have liquid capital of 4 billion shekels in its coffers. With this money it finances various activities, including a bloated PR budget and media sponsorships in exchange for positive plugs and coverage. It also finances projects, but the decision-making process in these investments is hidden from the public eye.

The JNF itself serves as an effective cash box for the government, to which it passes 25 percent of the value of the land sold by the Israel Land Authority. The JNF also serves as a hothouse for political appointments and an instrument for advancing political deals. It is no wonder, then, that cabinet ministers hastened to block Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s proposal to subject the JNF to the state comptroller’s scrutiny. Neither is it surprising that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s demand to change the JNF from a private to a public company, which would require it to publish financial reports, also met with opposition.

Weinstein and Livni must stand fast. The JNF cannot remain in the dark; it is not a private company dealing with assets that have no public interest. Like the rest of the national institutions, the JNF must be transparent.