The coffers of the Jewish National Fund hold 4 billion shekels ($1.15 billion) in liquid assets, the “Hamakor” (“The Source”) investigative news program on Channel 10 revealed Wednesday. According to the report, in 2009-2013 the JNF, which controls 13 percent of the land in Israel, or 2.5 million dunams (some 620,000 acres), received almost 6 million shekels for administering its land, a sum that represents over 90 percent of its income.
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The investigation revealed problematic spending by the JNF, which is not reviewed by the State Comptroller’s Office.
One of the stories in the investigative report relates to President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday party. In June 2013 the JNF was harshly criticized after it transferred half a million dollars to a foundation headed by former United States President Bill Clinton, to pay for his speech at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot a day before the festive birthday party at the Binyanei Hauma convention center in Jerusalem included in the Presidential Conference events. The JNF transferred the money to the Peres Academic Center, which transferred it to the Clinton Foundation several months before the event.
Due to public criticism of the payment, the JNF announced several days later that “That the decision of the international Presidential Conference not to take part in the event at the academic center was accepted with the consent of the center, including returning the money,” but the “Hamakor” exposé revealed that at least a quarter of a million dollars were never returned to the JNF.
In addition, “Hamakor” revealed that in order to handle the media crisis surrounding the event, the JNF hired former Israel Defense Forces spokesman Avi Benayahu, who was paid 300,000 shekels, after the fact and without a tender. The JNF also paid tens of thousands of shekels to attorney Alon Gellert, who provided legal advice during that period, and tens of thousands of shekels to a production company that was supposed to produce an event that was canceled.
According to the investigation, the JNF planted a garden in the President’s Residence at a budget of over 3 million shekels. In addition, the JNF sponsored the Presidential Conference to the tune of about half a million shekels.
Spokesman’s budget grew fourfold
According to “Hamakor,” the JNF invests considerable sums in the media and public relations. Recently it paid 5 million shekels, without a tender, to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth for sponsoring a project called Environmental Heroes, and about half a million shekels to the financial daily newspaper Globes for sponsorship of the Globes Israel Business Conference.
JNF Director General Meir Spiegler explained that the money is also for “ongoing activity to be backed by articles and reports in 2013-2014.”
Both newspapers claimed in response that the money was transferred only to their commercial departments, and there is no connection between them and the work of the editorial staff.
The JNF spokesman’s office budget increased from 6.9 million shekels in 2009 to 24 million shekels in 2014. In addition, a new public relations department was established, with a budget of another 25-30 million shekels.
The JNF’s expenditures on legal representation also increased substantially. In 2009 the JNF paid legal advisers 6 million shekels, and in 2013, 13 million shekels.
In 2011 TheMarker published a critical article about the JNF, after which the JNF hired three different legal firms, one of which, Gideon Fischer & Co., charged it 230,000 shekels for expenses. In addition, attorney Eli Aflalo, a co-chairman of the JNF, received 100,000 in 2013 for legal consultation.
JNF: We’re a stable and balanced organization
The JNF responded to the claims yesterday. “While in Israel public companies are giving ‘haircuts’ to creditors and senior executives are earning huge sums from our savings and pensions, the JNF is a stable, balanced and well run organization, which doesn’t take a shekel of the taxpayer’s money," a spokesperson for the organization said. "The ‘Hamakor’ investigation is part of a campaign by [co-anchor Raviv] Drucker, among others, which is designed to undermine the JNF's independent status. Mr. Drucker is involved in an inherent conflict of interest that casts doubt on his judgment.
“On the subject of money you are revealing total ignorance. The JNF does not receive a penny from the state for administering land. The opposite is true. The JNF pays one third of the Israel Lands Authority's expenses for its activities. The JNF receives compensation from the ILA for the land in its possession after discounts of hundreds of millions of shekels that it grants annually. The ILA has a cumulative debt of billions of shekels to the JNF. In addition, in the context of the dramatic land settlement between the JNF and the state, the JNF transferred tens of thousands of dunams in the high-demand areas in the center of the country, for which it received land in the peripheral areas in return," the spokesperson said.
“If the JNF were characterized by norms of wastefulness as you claim, it should have distributed and wasted the reserves to which you’re referring. The existence of the reserves indicates a conservative, restrained and responsible policy – just the opposite of what you claim. The JNF, exercising great responsibility, took care of pensions for its employees, which constitute over two thirds of the reserves, so that in effect these are guaranteed provisions for pensions while the available reserves are equivalent to one year’s budget. Our behavior is responsible and in no way wasteful, in accordance with the updated rules of corporate governance.
“The JNF does in fact initiate marketing content activities," the spokesperson added. "It operates according to what is customary among many public groups in the industry. The JNF invests far less in marketing content and advertising than similar public groups, and the value of the exposure it receives via the media channels is far higher than the sum invested. The JNF is involved in education for values and in educating those who use its forest to safeguard the environment. It works with the media in accordance with the rules and regulations in those bodies. The JNF chooses where to market based on professional criteria and the relevance of the advertising, the distribution and the channel to its target audience. In regard to Yedioth Aharonoth, here too you are demonstrating your ignorance. In this case there is absolutely no need for a tender. The rights to the Environmental Heroes initiative belong to Yedioth Ahronoth, not to the JNF.
“The public relations department, or visitors’ department, has no connection to public relations. Already in 2009 this department was separated from the media department and transferred to the money-raising division. The visitors’ department handles over 15 million visitors to JNF sites annually. It’s strange that Mr. Drucker chose not to inform you about that detail," the spokesperson said.
“JNF legal expenses have not increased significantly over the years. This matter was clearly explained to ‘Hamakor.’ The difference is that in the past these expenses were ‘concealed’ in the departments and today they are combined under one clause. The lawyers you mentioned provide proven service to the JNF and the attempt to cast aspersions on them or to imply a political connection is slanderous. We presented to ‘Hamakor,’ as we would be happy to present to you too if you were really interested, facts that prove this claim.
“Concerning the Peres Academic Center: The production company did not receive a cent. The Meitar Liquornik Geva Leshem Tal law firm, where attorney Gellert is a senior partner, is also working with the JNF in the arbitration procedure that is taking place at present.
“Concerning the president’s garden: This is an earmarked donation that was raised from 33 communities worldwide to start a ‘President’s Garden–JNF Park’ in advance of the pope’s visit. During the visit the pope planted a tree in the park, and the park that is named for the JNF hosts world leaders and constitutes an important contribution to the JNF's reputation.
“Concerning the Presidential Conference: We are proud of the cooperation. At the conference there was a special session led by the JNF on the subject of the worldwide food shortage, with the participation of senior officials, including heads of state and the United Nations. For the JNF it was very important to participate in the event that included senior UN officials, since in the past it was declared a racist organization by the UN.
“Many people have their eyes on the JNF coffers, in an attempt to nationalize them for political and other purposes. The JNF has been involved in Zionist activity for the past 113 years and serves as a bridge between communities abroad and Zionist, settlement and environmental activity in Israel, and it will continue to do so for many years to come. The JNF today stands at the forefront in fighting the delegitimization campaign against the State of Israel, which is being conducted by Palestinian groups worldwide. The JNF will continue to maintain its independence and its financial and values-related ability to serve the Zionist objectives found in its original constitution.”