Israeli Minister Funnels Funds to the Same Orthodox Cronies, Whatever His Title

Millions of shekels earmarked for struggling rural areas are going to urban religious groups in central Israel linked to his Habayit Hayehudi party.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel.
Eyal Toueg

“Uri Ariel has been going around for three years with a cash box on his back, handing out money,” said the head of a nonreligious garin, a group of young adults living in a disadvantaged area to provide social outreach. He was referring to at least 110 million shekels ($29.2 million) that Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) controls, and that is intended for disadvantaged communities outside of the center of the country.

On paper, that money is supposed to go to groups like those headed by the man who spoke to Haaretz, who asked that his name not be published. He says his garin did not receive any of these funds.

So where is the money going? Mainly to groups that are similar in scope but composed specifically of religiously observant young adults. They include garinim that are located in cities in central Israel, such as Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Or Yehuda, and with which figures from Habayit Hayehudi are affiliated.

Ariel was first given control of these funds by the cabinet in 2013, as housing minister. He channeled them through his ministry or through the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, which is not obligated to transparency in its activities.

The funneling of government funds to the Settlement Division was harshly criticized and was eventually brought to an end after February 2015, when Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber said the time had come to stop directly funding the agency without tenders or proper monitoring. In fact such funding dried up and the department became an operational arm only.

Haaretz found that the list of Orthodox groups supported by the Agriculture Ministry in 2015 was very similar to the list of groups that were previously funded by the Settlement Division. The involvement of figures from Habayit Hayehudi was also similar.

Two such groups are headed by Ariel Dorfman, a close associate of Ariel’s. One received 15,000 shekels and the other got 35,000 shekels. Dorfman is now under investigation by the State Comptroller’s Office over the way funding was transferred back when Ariel was housing minister.

Dorfman said the comptroller was not going to release a report on the matter because there was nothing to it. However, Haaretz found that a report on how Ariel and his associates funded these groups is to be released soon.

Meanwhile, other groups, which had been funded in the past by the Settlement Division, were denied funding by the Agriculture Ministry in 2015. These include groups in outlying cities like Dimona, Eilat, Arad and Netivot.

In a response, Ariel’s office said the funding of the garinim was completely transparent and based on tenders. The Agriculture Ministry said funds are distributed according to clearly defined criteria.