Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel is an expert at channeling budgets to both settlements and political activity that reinforce his own position.
In September 2013, the housing cabinet decided to transfer 110 million shekels ($30.4 million) to strengthen outlying areas of the country, especially the Galilee and the Negev. Ariel, who was housing minister at the time and a member of Habayit Hayehudi’s Tekuma faction, was in charge of implementing the program.
Ariel and his people worked to change the wording of the decision so the money could be used anywhere in the country, not only in outlying areas. Their reasoning: There are also “socially outlying areas” that should be taken care of.
According to the state comptroller’s report released on Tuesday, political officials in the minister’s inner circle diverted the money to associations close to them. Ariel pushed out professionals who were to have decided the criteria for distributing the money and instead involved his close associates in the decision-making process. Some of those deciding where the money would go were the eventual beneficiaries of it. Among them are associations that fund so-called “Torah core” groups, groups in well-heeled communities – central Tel Aviv, Ramat Aviv and Ra’anana, for example – where they work to persuade secular teens to become Orthodox and support the settlements.
Despite the original intent of the housing cabinet, most of the money went to middle-class or even better off communities, with only a third reaching the Negev and the Galilee. Moreover, 56 percent of the budget was diverted to political activists for Ariel or for his Tekuma party. Some of them were directors or other functionaries in those associations, which could indicate a conflict of interest.
A few days before the 2015 election, Ariel held a conference in Jerusalem. In the invitation to the conference, he asked directors of the “Torah core” groups who had asked for funding “to do everything to build a great and strong Jewish home” – “Jewish home” being the name of his political party, Habayit Hayehudi. This is corrupt use of state funds.
The state comptroller noted in his report that “involvement of lobbyists, parties with vested interests and political associates of government ministers in these processes constitutes serious damage to good governance, proper administration and the public interest in general…Ariel bears responsibility for the failures that have been brought up.”
Moreover, according to a Haaretz investigation in September, this method persists today as well in the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry, to which Ariel took the funding when he was appointed minister, as per the coalition agreements.
The state comptroller gave the material to the attorney general who will examine the activities of the associations and the “Torah core” groups. However, a criminal investigation should be launched against the minister himself. It is robbery of the public coffers for the benefit of his personal position to move money to political activists at the expense of outlying communities, and establishing political core groups to strengthen “the Jewish home” (Habayit Hayehudi). Ariel’s actions raise suspicions of fraud, breach of trust and corruption. The attorney general cannot ignore this.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.
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