JNF Deputy Chair Slams Organization's Plans to Formalize Settlement Expansion

Rift in the organization over policy to expand remit into West Bank intensified after deputy chair Alon Tal spoke to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose Kahol Lavan party opposes the move

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The JNF-KKL and Israeli flags in the West Bank, 2013
The JNF-KKL and Israeli flags in the West Bank, 2013Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A political battle raged in the leadership of the Jewish National Fund – Keren Kayemet Israel – after its deputy chair said Sunday that he “strongly opposes” his own organization’s plan to formalize purchase of land in the West Bank for the potential expansion of settlements, rebuking the group for getting “hijacked by narrow interests.”

Alon Tal, the deputy chair of JNF, told Haaretz that it was “highly unfortunate that a proposal with such enormous implications for Israel and diplomatic status has been submitted in such a hasty and inappropriate fashion."

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The proposal took the wider JNF leadership, including Tal, by surprise on Thursday, when it was announced that the group’s directorate was scheduled to meet on Sunday afternoon to approve the plan.

He criticized the ostensibly unilateral nature of the decision: “Before the JNF-KKL makes any policy statements about the West Bank, it should have conducted a serious consultation process, with the Defense Ministry, and the country’s security services as well as with Foreign Ministry so that its policy would not have disastrous implications," he said. 

Instead, he argued that the present proposal seems to had been "hijacked by narrow interests which unfortunately refer to short term political gains instead of a responsible and unifying national policy.”

Tal, who said his position had been taken after consultations with his party leader, Defense Minister and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, added that “an international Zionist institution would work in concert with its top elected officials in diplomacy and security rather than pursuing a narrow agenda. The present proposal appears that it has been hijacked by narrow interests which unfortunately refer to short term political gains instead of a responsible and unifying national policy.”

Kahol Lavan, Tal said, is calling for a "serious discussion in order to ensure that this national institution represents a broad consensus and not a reckless foray into an area in which the organization has no place.”

According to the proposal, the JNF would acquire private land, with priority given to land within settlements, land where construction is expected to face few obstacles, and land adjacent to existing settlements that can be used for their expansion.

The JNF, an organization founded in 1901 to acquire and develop land in pre-state Israel for Jewish use, has operated unofficially in the West Bank for years, but has done so using a subsidiary.

The organization's proposal gives priority to land in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, the Jordan Valley, areas around Jerusalem, the Binyamin region north of Jerusalem, the South Hebron Hills, and areas adjacent to the pre-1967 border. The proposal indicates that no land would be purchased in the Nablus or Jenin areas.

The proposal states that the JNF would continue with the afforestation of open areas in the West Bank "in order to sustain the land," in coordination with the Civil Administration, the government's administrative body in the West Bank. It adopts a legal opinion that was written for the JNF in September of 2019 by Judge Yosef Alon, which states that the JNF can purchase land in the West Bank that is "intended for Jewish settlement."

When asked about the matter on Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said "we believe it is critical to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution." 

The JNF-KKL proposal comes on the heels of a major leadership change in the organization at the end of last year. In October, Avraham Duvdevani, a member of the religious Zionist Mizrahi movement was given the position of JNF. For the previous past five years, the position had been filled by a Labor Party appointee.

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