Knesset Passes Controversial Settlement-funding Bill

Law aimed at circumventing ban on allocations to WZO Settlement Division.

A general view shows the Jewish settlement of Itamar on a hilltop overlooking the West Bank village of Awarta near Nablus March 12, 2011.
Reuters

A law regulating the transfer of government funds to a group whose projects include paying for construction in West Bank settlements was passed in the Knesset late Wednesday night after a stormy debate.

The law is meant to circumvent a legal opinion issued by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber in early 2015. That opinion barred all government allocations to the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, an agency the state has funded for decades, on the grounds that it operates in a legal gray area.

Though the opposition tried to filibuster the bill, sponsored by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), it wasn’t able to keep it from passing. The law passed by a vote of 53 to 48, with one abstention — MK Eitan Broshi (Zionist Union).

The law is meant to address several of the problems Zilber cited in her opinion and to formalize the government’s relationship with the Settlement Division. It authorizes the government, with the WZO’s permission, to transfer certain governmental responsibilities to the Settlement Division. To carry out these responsibilities, the division will be authorized to take any necessary action — including allocating funds, doing planning and development work, issuing tenders and providing advice and assistance to settlements — subject to cabinet resolutions and agreements between the government and the division.

But alongside these new powers will come certain new obligations: The division will now be subject to the Tenders Law and the Freedom of Information Law, just as government agencies are.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), explaining the bill to the Knesset before the vote, said that it “does something that should have been done when the state was established. The division’s actions are praiseworthy, but in all the state’s 67 years the legal relationship between the government and this agency, an arm of the World Zionist Organization that does work for the government and various government agencies, was never formalized.”

MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) sought to link the bill to a video that went viral on Wednesday, showing Jewish extremists at a wedding stabbing a photograph of Ali Dawabsheh, the toddler who died in the West Bank firebomb attack last summer that also killed his parents. “This law about the Settlement Division is part of the same group,” she charged.

“This bill was intended to deceive America,” she added. “The government is effectively transferring its powers to the settlement division, but not its obligations. I would have been willing to accept this bill with the addition of one sentence — that everything which applies to the government will apply to the Settlement Division. But of course they didn’t accept that.”

MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) made a similar claim: “Perhaps this law was intended to lie to the European Union, but the law provides an opening for lying to the state and lying to the court,” he said.