After 52 Years, Jewish National Fund Divorcing Israel Lands Administration

Housing Ministry pushing the breakup, in the hope of stoking competition.

After 52 years, the Jewish National Fund is eager to dump its partner in managing the sale of Israeli land, the Israel Lands Administration.

The JNF board voted unanimously Thursday in favor of preparing a plan to quickly regain management of the land, as had been the situation until 1961, instead of sharing the responsibility with the Israel Lands Administration.

This divorce between the JNF and ILA was proposed by Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel and his ministry's director general, Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu.

In early May, Ben-Eliyahu presented a plan to the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee that would see the entities go their separate ways. Ben-Eliyahu told the committee he wanted the JNF and ILA to compete in providing land to the public. According to the JNF's board, the divorce would be done quickly.

"More than once, the minister has expressed his position in favor of the separation of the JNF from the ILA," Ariel's office said in a statement. "Such a step would promote competition in the Israeli land market and help lower housing prices. But legal steps are necessary to carry out the separation, and they are being examined."

More than 90% of the country's land, including land owned by the JNF, is in the public domain. All of it is managed with the JNF's input via the ILA, a government authority.

The JNF owns 12% of Israel's public land

The JNF owns about 2.5 million dunams of land, more than 600,000 acres, or 12% of all public land. The JNF's stake in areas in high demand for residential construction is thought to be much higher - about 30% to 35%.

The JNF predates the state itself; it was established in 1901. It is perhaps best known in the Diaspora for the blue contribution boxes through which Jews around the world have helped the organization buy, reclaim and reforest land around the country.

The JNF managed its land on its own until 1961, when the finance minister at the time, Levi Eshkol, and JNF chairman Jacob Tsur entrusted management to the state in trusteeship.

The idea behind joint management was to ensure uniform policy in managing public land.

Ben-Eliayhu's plan includes a change at two subcommittees of the Israel Lands Council, the entity that sets policy at the ILA. The council, which functions as the ILA's board, has been made up of representatives of the JNF and the government.

Both subcommittees are currently headed by JNF officials. One is chaired by JNF chairman Efi Stenzler, the other by his deputy, Eli Aflalo. Ben-Eliyahu of the Housing Ministry would replace Stenzler on the land subcommittee, which is considered the most important of the sub-panels.

The change at the the subcommittees would deprive the JNF of oversight of its own assets, sources close to the issue said, leaving the organization no choice but to part with the ILA.

A divorce would be complicated in part because the ILA partnership has lasted 52 years.

Meanwhile, the JNF's bylaws require it to hold land in trust for the Jewish people and only lease it, not sell it.

Alon Ron
Michal Fattal