Israel Watchdog Suspects Settlement Body of Illegally Funding NGOs Connected to Far-right Lawmaker

The State comptroller report found settlement body Mateh Binyamin Regional Council funded right-wing settler groups tied to Bezalel Smotrich

File photo: MK Bezalel Smotrich at the illegal Amona outpost in the West Bank, February 1, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The State Comptroller’s report published on Tuesday harshly criticized the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, asserting that it transferred money to two NGOs connected to MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) after tailoring the funding criteria to suit them. The council also illegally transferred millions of shekels to private organizations that administer illegal outposts.

The two organizations, Regavim and Ofek Lehityashvut, received hundreds of thousands of shekels. In 2012-2016 the regional council granted an average of 460,000 shekels (about $130,000) annually to Regavim, according to the criterion of “organizations working to preserve the land,” the only NGO to make such a request. Smotrich headed the organization for part of that time.

Despite allocating almost half a million shekels annually to “organizations working to preserve the land,” in 2014 Mateh Binyamin published another criterion for support of “organizations working to redeem land in Judea and Samaria.” Only Ofek Hityashvut made such a request, and received 300,000 shekels, half of its income. Its goal is to transfer land on the West Bank to Jewish ownership.

Moreover, the head of the regional council and his assistant are involved in the two NGOs, which strengthens the suspicion that the council set criteria designed to ensure that these NGOs would receive the requested support, according to the comptroller. In 2014, when the criteria were determined, Smotrich was already an MK, although the NGO is still registered at his address.

The report said that the criteria for the budget were unusual, and that suiting specific criteria to the two organizations prevents genuine equality and transparency in distributing support funds. There is also a suspicion that ulterior motives were involved in determining the criteria.

There is also criticism against diverting budgets from the councils that run the settlements – which are required to promote apolitical governance obedience to the law – to NGOs, which are private bodies that among other things run the illegal outposts. The money was used for municipal purposes, which are the responsibility of the council. This is illegal.

Recently Smotrich has been promoting a draft bill to restrict the comptroller’s power to intervene in the activity of government ministries. Discussion in the Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation has been postponed for a month due to opposition by some coalition members. Committee Chairwoman and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is trying to find a compromise.

Smotrich claims that there is no connection between the report published today and his opinion regarding the role and powers of the controller and the law he’s trying to promote. His argument with the comptroller has been going on for over a year. He says his interest is practical and professional.

Regavim said that the councils’ support for Regavim’s activity maintains the rules of proper administration and legal requirements. Some councils waste public money on support for anti-Zionist organizations, they said, and some, like those in Judea and Samaria, see the preservation of state lands as a public and Zionist value.

The Mateh Binyamin Regional Council said that according to the comptroller’s report, the council operates at the highest standards of proper administration. They claim that the comptroller did not say that bids were tailored to the NGOs.

They maintain that Mateh Binyamin operates according to the law, claiming that among the council’s thousands of annual activities, the comptroller found only a few mistakes, most of which were technical and made in good faith.