The Knesset Constitution Committee will be asked this coming Wednesday to approve turning the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) into a public authority that will be subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
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The purpose is to ensure the division is transparent about spending.
After the committee’s approval, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will sign an order that validates the amendment. The WZO's settlement division has in recent years served as the executive arm of the government in the areas of construction and the building of settlements and infrastructure in the territories and inside Israel, and is funded entirely by the state budget.
The procedure in the Knesset was led in the past year by Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On, who claimed that the department has become an arm for channeling money to the settlements – without transparency – since the department’s budgets are not approved in the context of the state budget, but rather by means of general budgetary transfers in the Knesset Finance Committee.
“In the past six months the budget of the settlement division increased by half a billion shekels. We want to know where the money went. The government claims that it went to projects to develop the Negev and the Galilee. I claim that the money went to construction in the territories. When there is transparency, we will finally be able to know what was done with this money,” Gal-On said.
Gal-On spoke to Livni and asked her to compose amendments that will bring about transparency in the Settlement Division. Livni agreed to her request, but explained that she couldn’t do it without the approval of the Knesset Constitution Committee. Since then, that committee has delayed discussion of the subject, which will be on the agenda next Wednesday, the last day of activity in the winter session before the Knesset goes into recess. “Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beitenu pressured the committee to prevent the deliberations from taking place,” says Gal-On.
In the paper Livni sent to the committee members, she asks them to approve her signing of only one clause: “I determine that the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization is a public authority for legal purposes.”
Seven years ago, the government decided that the Settlement Division would serve as the executive arm of the government, and a legal opinion determined that the department must conduct itself according to norms and procedures in the spirit of the law. But the department did not do so. In November 2011 Yesh Din-Volunteers for Human Rights turned to the department with a request based on the Freedom of Information Law, asking for various data related to the allocation of land for agriculture and for construction, and to leasing agreements between the department and the Custodian of Government and Abandoned Property in Judea and Samaria.
When they didn’t receive the requested information, Yesh Din appealed to the Jerusalem Court of Administrative Affairs, which ruled that since the Settlement Division fills a public role and is a body under review, it should be considered a “public authority” in terms of the Freedom of Information Law. The Settlement Division appealed to the Supreme Court, which accepted the appeal and ruled that until the Justice Minister specifically asserts that the Settlement Division is a “public authority,” it is not subject to the Freedom of Information law.
Former State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss is now the chair of Transparency International. In a letter he sent to members of the Constitution Committee, he urges them to approve the amendment. “There is no choice but to anchor the Settlement Division’s obligation of transparency in legislation. This is also necessary because in the present legal situation the person requesting information is dependent on the generosity and the good will of the Settlement Division when it comes to receiving information: If it so desires it reveals the information, and if it so desires it refuses, and [the person requesting information] does not even have a right to appeal to the court against refusal to provide information.”
Says Lindenstrauss: “Approval of the Justice Minister’s request will constitute an important step for promoting the principle of transparency: Both in the specific case of the Settlement Division and in general, by sending a message that every body that is in essence a public authority, must at the least abide by the obligations imposed on it by dint of the law.”