Abolish the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division

While meant to engage in rural development throughout Israel, the division instead serves as a tool for sacrificing public funds to the narrow interests of the settler movement.

Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim.
Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, Dec. 2012. Reuters

Among all the clauses in the coalition agreements, which are primarily expensive payoffs for the Haredim and the settlers, one that stands out is the promise to Habayit Hayehudi to add 50 million shekels ($12.9 million) to the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, and put it under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry, which, not coincidentally, is to be headed by Habayit Hayehudi’s Uri Ariel.

A legal opinion by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber forbade the state to continue funding the Settlement Division so long as it operates without any oversight or public transparency. The division is meant to engage in rural development throughout Israel, but it has been identified primarily with the building and bolstering of settlements in the occupied territories.

Its methods of operation in these areas can be understood from a letter Zilber recently wrote to sum up a discussion with regard to the management of abandoned government property in Judea and Samaria. According to Zilber, the Settlement Division received from the Custodian of Government and Abandoned Property in Judea and Samaria thousands of acres of land in those areas, without any government official having overseen the process, and transferred those lands to a third party – the settlements – without the state’s knowledge, and possibly without any recompense.

The division’s budget is traditionally built using a base that isn’t particularly large (in 2013 it was some 50 million shekels) while during the year it gets increments through the Knesset Finance Committee. During the 19th Knesset, under Knesset Finance Committee chairman and settler’s representative Nissan Slomiansky, these increments skyrocketed to a high of half a billion shekels. Attempts during the last Knesset to make the division subject to the freedom of information law failed.

These coalition agreements are full of injustices and distortions, including the wholesale distribution of social and financial assets needed to assure a sustainable future to cobble together a coalition. But the Settlement Division clause is particularly problematic; not only is it not legally legitimate, it is also immoral because it is a tool for expanding and perpetuating the occupation.

The Settlement Division — which in the investigations involving Yisrael Beiteinu has been linked to corruption allegations — should be dismantled and its responsibilities given to the relevant government ministries, which will carry them out transparently and lawfully. Today, it is a tool for sacrificing public funds to the narrow interests of the settlers and their wheeler-dealers, and for advancing invalid norms of public service and administration.