JNF Gets 60-day Extension to Contest Move Making It More Accountable

Move may push effort to increase oversight of land management agency until after Knesset summer recess.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has delayed the registration of the Jewish National Fund as a public-benefit corporation by another 60 days. The move would subject it to oversight by the Companies Registrar and require it to publish financial reports.

The land management agency, also known by its Hebrew name Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, is currently registered as a private company.

This is the second time Weinstein has delayed the status change. He had declared his intention to change the status in mid-March.

Last week, the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), wrote to Weinstein asking for a further delay. The first delay had been granted on May 1, giving the JNF time to try and negotiate some other arrangement with the Justice Ministry. Weinstein agreed to allow another 60 days, but said that it would not change his opinion that the JNF is in fact operating as a public-benefit corporation.

“My position was, and continues to be, that based on the current provisions of the law, the JNF is a public-benefit corporation … Any other interpretation would contravene the public interest, which stems from the fact that the JNF’s budget is based on public funds,” he replied. While he agreed to grant another 60 days “out of respect” for Rotem, he warned against requests for any further delays.

In 60 days, the Knesset will be on its summer recess, raising concerns that the issue could be allowed to slide for several more months.

In March, deputy attorney general Avi Licht issued a firm opinion that the Companies Registrar must classify the JNF as a public-benefit corporation.

“It’s an entity with a huge budget based on public funding, whether directly through contributions or through money that has come and continues to come from the transfer of the rights to land owned by the JNF,” Licht argued. “There is currently almost no public or regulatory oversight of the JNF management. Public positions, funding that comes from the public and a political and decentralized management structure requires transparency and regulation.”

Although the request for the delay came from Rotem, it is known that many other coalition members would be pleased to continue shielding the JNF from government or public scrutiny.

Two months ago, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation rejected a bill proposed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to submit the JNF to audit by the state comptroller – a bill opposed by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel.

Founded in 1901 to purchase land on behalf of the Jewish people in Ottoman-controlled Palestine, the JNF ultimately came to amass large land holdings, many of which have been used to develop forests and other recreation areas, and more recently to address environmental needs. Currently, it not only fulfills a number of public functions, it has also been given governmental powers in the field of afforestation.