The board of directors of the Jewish National Fund, a venerable institution of the Israeli nation-building enterprise, approved allocating 38 million shekels to purchase land for West Bank settlements last week.
Eleven of the Jewish National Fund's executive members sat around that table had come into office only four months ago, following a stormy election campaign within the Zionist Congress, which oversees the JNF.
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The election results changed the power balance, swinging it to the right for the first time in its history. Danny Atar, the Labor Party stalwart that headed JNF until the election, was replaced by Avraham Duvdevani, formerly of the National Religious Party and secretary of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement.
Another new board member is the director-general of the Bnei Brak local authority, Shmuel Litov, who represents an American ultra-Orthodox faction. Shlomo Dery, brother of the leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, Interior Minister Arye Dery, was also appointed associate chairman, a post that is unsalaried but receives clerical support from the JNF.
According to sources within the organization, Dery is the one who had sponsored the proposal, according to which the JNF will acquire in priority private land within or adjacent to existing settlements and land where construction is expected to face few obstacles.
A natural phenomenon, an organized approach
Several factors led to the right’s rise. First, it is generally correlated to dynamics within the Israeli legislature, as the distribution of party delegates in the Zionist Congress reflects the number of Knesset seats of those same parties. The Israeli left’s diminishing power is reflected there too.
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Another major change came, not from Israel, but from the United States. The new “Eretz Hakodesh” (Holy Land) faction, set up by American fundamentalists who identify with the right, succeeded beyond all expectations, winning 25 delegates at the expense of the Reform and Conservative movements.
At the same time, a group called Melukadim, whose members consist of Likud activists from West Bank settlements, labored to place right wing officials in positions of power in Zionist institutions, including JNF. The group is headed by Yishai Merling, 31, of the West Bank settlement Efrat, who recently won a prestigious post – chairman of the settlement division.
“We’re the new generation, we don’t work under the table,” Merling says in a conversation with Haaretz. “Our idea was to come and say that Judea and Samaria must be on JNF’s agenda. We think we deserve this, that it is our right, not a favor.”
Some say the JNF’s shift to the right was also facilitated by the support it received from figures like Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich in his battles against the Finance Ministry.
Nothing more than rubber-stamping?
The left did win a small victory on the new settlements proposal. An appendix consisting of a long list of preferred settlements in which the JNF would act was removed from the proposal, although this could be a mixed blessing, as it also defined where the JNF would not buy lands – in the Jenin and Nablus districts. “We demanded to remove that appendix,” says Davidi Ben Zion, a JNF director and deputy head of the Samaria Regional Council, which brings together local settlement authorities from the northern part of the West Bank.
“I live in Elon Moreh,” Ben Zion says, referring to a settlement just east of Nablus “and it’s unacceptable to me that an organization that belongs to the Jewish people would harm a place where Abraham the patriarch walked.” He says the JNF’s real estate committee, which has a majority of right wing officials, is set to reexamine the appendix.
Ben Zion, who represents the Mizrahi movement, says the new policy only increases the transparency as to what has always been done. “JNF acted over the years to buy lands for the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria as well,” he says. “Even those who objected knew it was going on. The only difference is that we’ve finished with the bluffing. And that’s because Duvdevani is an honest man.”
Indeed, the JNF has been buying lands in the West Bank ever since it was occupied, except for a period between the early 2000s and 2017. Haaretz reported extensively on the cooperation between JNF subsidiary Himanuta and settler NGO Elad, in attempts to expel Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem for example.
Former chairman Atar had also found a way into the settlers’ heart, despite being from the Labor party. He visited a Jordan Valley outpost, for example, although leftist factions attempt to explain this by his desire to preserve his status.
The settler connection
Eyebrows were raised when Arnan Felman, a Likud member and former chairman of the JNF’s finance committee and the organization’s deputy chairman, also took part in the vote to change the JNF’s policy. Felman was implicated in a string of controversial land deals in the West Bank, revealed last August in an external report by the former deputy attorney general, Yehoshua Lemberger.
As the journalist Raviv Drucker exposed, a JNF subsidiary, Himanuta Jerusalem, purchased since 2017 lands in the West Bank for about 100 million shekels, which were apparently transferred from the budget to buy lands in “Jerusalem and the periphery” without reporting to JNF’s institutions about it.
The report was only given to a select few, who were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Other directors’ requests to see the report went unanswered. Last week Drucker published the report in his blog. It said: “Over the entire relevant period, numerous discussions in JNF institutions were held. The directors at those discussions were supposedly representing the various streams in the JNF, on the basis of a coalition key. However, only two of them, Felman and [Himanuta head Nachi] Eyal, who belong to one certain political faction, knew the whole picture, while all the others were blind to it and knew nothing of the goings on.”
The board members were also sworn to secrecy a few months earlier, when they were shown an opinion by retired judge Joseph Elon, which legitimizes the JNF’s activity in the West Bank.
At the heart of it is a JNF memo from 1953, which defines its area of activity as “the state of Israel, in every area under the Israeli government’s jurisdiction.” Elon cited High Court decisions ruling that the Israeli government’s jurisdiction does in fact apply to the West Bank, so the JNF can act in them.
“How can you say that after the government made a decision not to annex?” wonders Gilad Kariv, the president of Israel's Reform movement and Knesset candidate on the Labor slate. “If a body with a governing status said the settlements are within Israel’s jurisdiction, tomorrow it would be in a settlers’ petition.”
The center-left factions in JNF plan to submit an alternative opinion, which according to Dror Morag, a board member for Meretz, “will show that Elon’s opinion has no legal basis.”
The JNF said in response: “The document called the Lemberger report is not a report but a first draft submitted to the reading of the relevant people. Leaking the report draft at this stage is wrong, unfair and improper. Retired Judge Elon’s opinion will be given to the directors ahead of the discussion on policy.”
Arnan Felman said: “There’s no Lemberger report, only a draft.” He added that he had not commented on the draft so far because the JNF had not approved the funding for defending it yet. “I didn’t need Judge Elon’s opinion that the JNF has a full right to act in all parts of the state of Israel,” he said.
Nachi Eyal said: “I don’t want to comment on the report because I haven’t read it. The JNF hasn’t given it to me yet and the fact that it was in the media taints it. I’m glad of the part I had in redeeming land in the whole country, including in Judea and Samaria.”