Meretz Petitions High Court Against Increasing WZO Settlement Division's Budget

Meretz questions the legality of coalition agreement between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, which adds 50 million shekels ($12.9 million) to the division's budget.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. Credit: Eyal Toueg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Meretz petitioned the High Court of Justice on Tuesday to cancel the coalition agreement that increases the World Zionist Organization Settlement Division’s budget and puts it under Agricultural Minister-designate Uri Ariel’s control. This agreement, signed by Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, contradicts a ruling by the attorney general, the petition states.

The agreement adds 50 million shekels ($12.9 million) to this year’s budget for the WZO Settlement Division, a conduit for state funding of infrastructure development in West Bank settlements. The coalition pact also gives 15 million shekels over the next three years to the Center for Commemoration of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria, where the Sharon government evacuated 25 settlements in 2005.

The petition was filed against Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, the attorney general and the WZO Settlement Division, and is based on Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber’s February ruling that the state should stop funding the division. The only state funding permitted, Zilber ruled, is for salaries until 2019 – about 30 million shekels annually.

“We are turning to the High Court of Justice in order to prevent the government from trampling the law even before it [the government] is born,” said Galon. “Until now the Settlement Division served as the government’s executive arm for construction in the territories, without transparency and oversight regarding the distribution of the division’s funds, which led to an annual increase of hundreds of percentage points in the department’s budget as compared to its original one.”

In recent years the requests for budget increases were approved in the Knesset Finance Committee. In 2014 there was an increase of almost 1,000 percent in the budget – about half a billion shekels, compared to the 52.8 million shekels listed in the budget book. Also, the treasury asked last year to transfer another 26.5 million shekels to the Settlement Division, claiming that 25 million shekels of that sum was meant to correct a previous budgetary error. If the coalition agreement goes through, the division’s budget will keep increasing in coming years.

Galon sought last year to impose the Freedom of Information Law, which applies to state bodies, on the division’s activities. She argued that it is funded and tasked by the government, but the move was quashed by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The panel was chaired by then-MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), who confirmed in committee that as a private attorney, he defended the division against the 2005 Sasson report that was highly critical of government funding of settlements.

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