JNF Could Be Subject to State Comptroller Review if Israel’s Justice Ministry Has Its Way

The Jewish National Fund, which is registered as a private company even though its assets are state lands, spends billions subject to no government oversight.

Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel
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Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

The Justice Ministry is preparing a bill that will subject the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet Le’yisrael to audit by the state comptroller, exposing it to external review for the first time in its long history.

The JNF, which is registered as a private company even though its assets are state lands, has not yet seen the details of to the initiative, but the ministry is preparing for the fierce battle the organization is expected to wage. The proposed legislation will soon be circulated for comments from government ministries and then be submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which can advance it to the Knesset or bury it.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni initiated the bill even before it was reported that the JNF had paid half a million dollars for a speech by former U.S. President Bill Clinton as part of last month’s 90th birthday celebrations for President Shimon Peres. These reports highlighted the anomaly that had long been well-known − that the billions spent and taken in by this institution are not subject to any government oversight.

Similar legislation had been proposed by the previous comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, but nothing came of it. Current State Comptroller Joseph Shapira supports the move.

The JNF was established in 1901 by the Fifth Zionist Congress to purchase land for Jews in the Land of Israel. After the state was established there was ostensibly no reason for the continued existence of the fund, yet it carried on functioning. In 1961 the lands it owned were put under the management of the state’s Israel Lands Administration ‏(now the Israel Lands Authority‏). The JNF owns some 13 percent of the state’s lands, and its revenue comes mainly from the sale of land that the ILA markets on its behalf. The JNF’s assets are estimated at NIS 8 billion. In recent years its annual revenues have ranged between NIS 500 million to NIS 800 million per year, with over half of the budget earmarked for organizational expenses.

Today the fund is identified mainly with planting and forestry, so much so that many consider it to be a “green” organization, but it is also a fruitful source of jobs for insiders and political appointees. For the past seven years it has been headed by former Givatayim Mayor Effi Stenzler, and its co-chairman is Eli Aflalo, a former Kadima MK. But even though it is a private company, the JNF has a special public status because it has statutory authority over cutting down and moving trees. The JNF is represented on the ILA Council and its employees are considered public employees.

Despite its public orientation, the JNF is exempt from being audited by either the State Comptroller’s Office or the Finance Ministry. According to the organization’s budget, the average salary of the JNF’s 660 permanent employees is about NIS 20,000 per month, and the salary costs of its top 10 earners average NIS 47,000 per month. Some of the wage costs stem from budgetary pensions, which were part of the benefits offered by the JNF until 1995.

Besides the excessive spending that came to light during the Peres birthday celebrations, in December 2011, Uri Blau, writing in Haaretz, published minutes from JNF meetings that divulged how the body harasses Arabs who want to buy apartments. Under the JNF’s regulations, it is meant to sell lands and homes only to Jews.

Treasury and Justice Ministry officials have long claimed that the ILA makes the JNF superfluous. Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin specifically argued that the organization existed primarily to preserve its power and to distribute jobs to cronies.

A bulldozer at a JNF ceremony for a development project for the Bedouin town of Hura in January 2013.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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