JNF Agrees to Give Government $510m Over Two Years

Money go to housing and environmental projects, but agreement also puts off at least until 2021 any fundamental reform of government’s relations with JNF.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The government and the Jewish National Fund signed an agreement Wednesday ending, for now at least, a long-simmering dispute over control over land and money and providing more than 2 billion shekels ($510 million) for housing infrastructure and environmental projects.

But the agreement also puts off at least until 2021 any more-fundamental reform of the government’s relations with the JNF. Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid had tried to engineer an agreement that would have set JNF funding for government projects at 1 billion shekels a year and ultimately sought to nationalize what he called a source of political patronage.

The JNF, famous for its blue-and-white charity boxes and its tree-planting campaigns, is one of Israel’s biggest landowners, controlling 12% of all land in the country, valued at some 8 billion shekels. JNF’s 2014 annual report — the first-ever released to the public after its legal status was changed from a private company to a public benefit corporation — gave its revenues for the year as 2.14 billion shekels.

Lapid and others had sought to shake up the JNF, not only to help the budget but as a way to speed up home construction and to stem rising home prices.

Under the new agreement, the JNF will give the government 2.19 billion shekels over 2016 and 2017.

Of that, 1.19 billion shekels will go to infrastructure projects, especially projects aimed at expediting residential building, and 190 million shekels will go to environmental projects. In 2017, these amounts will be 800 million shekels and 200 million shekels, respectively.

The quasigovernmental organization will also help to advance five different projects with a total of 2,500 new homes. It also agreed to refer some 1 billion shekels in claims against local governments to an independent committee for arbitration.

However, from 2017 until 2021, when the agreement expires, the JNF will not be required to allocate additional funds to the state. The state’s Israel Lands Authority will continue to administrate JNF-owned land.

“This is really good news from a social perspective for the citizens of Israel. Enlisting the JNF for a record additional sum of 2.2 billion shekels for national and environmental undertakings joins its other path-breaking work in settlement, agriculture, water and forestation ... and will bring about a turning point in residential construction and in lowering the price of housing,” said JNF Chairman Effi Stenzler.

Stenzler signed the agreement with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Israel Adiel, the head of the ILA, representing the government. Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai has led the government’s side in the negotiations.

Both sides had good reason for finalizing the agreement now. Kahlon wanted to have the money available in time for the 2016 budget, which is due to be approved today by the Knesset, while Stenzler wanted it signed before he steps down as JNF chairman. In October, MK Daniel Atar (Zionist Union) was chosen to succeed him.

To expedite the agreement, both sides agreed to compromise on terms they reached in September. The earlier accord had called for the JNF to give the government 1.2 billion shekels next year and 65% of its annual revenues thereafter.

The revised agreement gives the government more money next year but enables the JNF to keep all its money from 2018 until the agreement expires in 2012.