By a narrow vote on Thursday, the board of directors of the Jewish National Fund in Israel approved allocating 38 million shekels ($11.6 million) for future purchases of land in the West Bank.
The organization, which is also known by its Hebrew name Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and which is separate from JNF in the United States, has not yet made a final policy decision, however, to permit the organization to purchase land in the West Bank, which is beyond Israel's sovereign borders.
Sources present at the vote said that, to their surprise, representatives of the Hadassah women's Zionist organization abstained, paving the way for the measure to pass. The Meretz party faction on the board said it would appeal the decision and ask for further debate in light of the closeness of the vote.
Among the organizations that supported the proposal were members representing the international Na'amat women's Zionist organization and the Maccabi World Union. Both groups are identified abroad with progressive streams of the Jewish world and it was therefore surprising that they voted with representatives of the right-wing parties.
Board members representing center-left parties and organizations at Keren Kayemeth had been fairly optimistic until Thursday that they stood a good chance of defeating the final resolution on land purchases in the territories, which is scheduled to be voted on right after the March 23 Knesset elections in Israel. The optimism was based on the assumption that Na’amat and Maccabi representatives would vote with them, giving the opposition a slight majority on the board.
Na'amat is active overseas primarily in the United States while Maccabi is active abroad mainly in Latin America. Following Thursday’s vote, the Na’amat and Maccabi board members are expected to face significant pressure from donors and supporters outside of Israel to change their position ahead of the final decision on the resolution.
The representatives of center-left parties and the organizations associated with them on the 32-person board of directors opposed holding the vote in part because of its timing in the run-up to the March 23 election.
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On Wednesday, Kahol Lavan party representative Daniel Avidor sent a letter to JNF Chairman Avraham Duvdevani and other board members asking to postpone Thursday's vote on the allocation of land purchase fuding until after the election to “avoid a national and international controversy at this sensitive time.”
The Meretz party's representative also sought to postpone the vote, while at the same time attempting to recruit a majority to vote against the move. According to sources involved, Duvdevani told the board that the vote would be held Thursday, but even if the funding was approved, as it in fact was, the funds would not be spent until a decision is made on JNF's overall policy on West Bank land purchases.
Last week, a smaller group of JNF leadership voted to support purchasing land for the benefit of the Jewish settlement enterprise. The proposal passed by a narrow margin of six in favor and five against and is still subject to approval by the board of directors after the Knesset election
The decision to postpone the board vote on the general policy regarding West Bank land purchases was made after several members of JNF's leadership threatened to resign. At the same time, Defense Minister Benny Gantz sent a letter asking the organization to postpone the vote until he could consult with defense officials and the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank.
On Wednesday, attorney Shachar Ben-Meir sent a professional opinion to the JNF board of directors that was issued at the behest of the center-left party representatives. Ben-Meir wrote that the JNF's memorandum of association does not permit it to buy land in the West Bank, and that in order to change that, the organization would need the approval of the justice minister. Gantz is currently serving in that position.
According to the proposal approved by the smaller JNF leadership group last week, which faced criticism from the U.S. State Department, the JNF would acquire privately owned West Bank land, with priority given to land within settlements, land where construction is expected to face few obstacles and land adjacent to existing settlements that could be used for their expansion. Keren Kayemeth, which was 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 it has done so through a subsidiary.
On Wednesday, Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich wrote to Duvdevani demanding that the proposal regarding land purchases in the West Bank land not be limited to Area C – the area under full Israeli civil and military control – but also permit land purchases throughout the West Bank, particularly in Hebron, where control is divided between Israel and the Palestinians.
Smotrich made reference to an addendum to the proposal voted on by the smaller group of JNF leadership and which included a list of settlements to be made a priority. It excluded the Nablus and Jenin areas from land purchases. That addendum was later removed from the proposal, however, and representatives from right- and left-wing parties will be negotiating the areas that would be subject to land purchases.