The Knesset gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to a bill enabling the government to resume funneling money to the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, an unsupervised pipeline for funds to West Bank settlements. This, despite Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber’s stated opinion last February that the state was forbidden from funding the Settlements Division, as it was operating without oversight or public transparency.
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The bill, sponsored by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), passed its initial vote 65 to 41. Although Zionist Union said it opposed the bill, two of its MKs, Eitan Broshi and Daniel Atar, supported it. Party activists from the rural community had exerted pressure on the Zionist Union to advance the bill, which would lead to resuming the funds to peripheral communities.
The division is meant to engage in rural development throughout Israel, but has been identified primarily with the building and bolstering of settlements in the occupied territories.
Zilber gave Labor faction head MK Merav Michaeli a legal opinion on Tuesday, calling on the party’s MKs to strike down the bill, since the Settlements Division’s activities are not subjected to the law governing Freedom of Information or public tenders. Zilber also said a government panel was currently examining the government and Settlement Division’s work relations and was about to make its recommendations.
The two Zionist Union MKs who supported the bill distributed a contrasting legal opinion intended to legitimize it, despite Zilber’s objections. MK Omer Bar Lev suggested that the Zionist Union abstain from the vote.
“In the eyes of the farming community, which isn’t familiar with the details, voting for the bill will be seen as supporting the Settlement Division’s continued activity, while voting against it will be seen as a demand to shut it down, and that’s not the case,” Bar Lev said. He himself ultimately abstained.
Smotrich criticized the Zionist Union MKs who didn’t support the bill. “Once rural development was part of this party’s ideology. Regrettably it enabled its members to cut off the branch it was sitting on,” he said.
MK Tzipi Livni said, “The bill isn’t for or against the rural communities but in favor of proper government. Now the [coalition] has invented a bill to bypass the attorney general. It’s because someone wants to receive the money in the dark, under the table.”