I have a question. Would you be willing to allow a government minister to receive an envelope with a check for half a billion shekels of our tax money in order to go on an epic personal shopping spree?
Allow me to guess the answer. You would not be very excited about the idea. That, however, is exactly what is going to happen next week, when Prime Minister Netanyahu transfers responsibility over the Settlement Division from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Ministry of Agriculture, which will be led by Uri Ariel. For members of Ariel’s Jewish Home party, it is going to be a day of celebration. It’s not every day you’re given an open check for half a billion shekels from the citizens of Israel, a check with which you may do whatever you like.
The Settlement Division, to remind you, is a non-governmental body funded by government taxes. They begin the year with a budget of just over 50 million shekels, but as time passes, this budget swells almost uncontrollably and, by year end, it amounts to half a billion shekels.
What do they do with this money? Who knows? Although our taxes fund the division, its leaders and politicians are fiercely protective of the budget, often refusing to implement measures of transparency and show us the receipts.
As we have seen in the past, when there is no transparency, there is corruption.
Last year, I participated in the first of its kind exposure of the Settlement Division’s budget. What did we discover? The Division, an arm of the World Zionist Organization that is supposed to support regional development throughout Israel, served as a conduit to transfer tens of millions of shekels to “non-profits,” run by senior associates of the Jewish Home. Three quarters (74.5%) of the Division’s direct support went to local communities in the settlements instead of in the Galilee and the Negev. This money, our money, that was intended for the periphery and Israelis in need, financed brand new, radical right-wing religious organizations that proselytize for “chazara b’tshuva” (return to reigion) in Hod Hasharon, Ra’anana and Ramat Aviv Gimmel.
After weeks of hard work, most of it carried out by a team of dedicated, young volunteers, I presented evidence to the Attorney General that the Settlement Divisions was involved in the transfer of public funds for political purposes and for friends of the Jewish Home party.
Shortly afterwards, investigators raided the offices of the Settlement Division under suspicion that some of its workers are involved with Yisrael Beytenu’s recent corruption scandal.
So what is the Jewish Home’s obsession with the Settlement Division? Former Housing Minister Uri Ariel was in charge of the secret committee that decided what organizations would receive support from the division. What was in it for him? A lot, actually. Early last year, for example, when the Jewish Home party organized a demonstration against Netanyahu (yes, I know, they were then in government, but that’s how it works for them), Ariel convened the heads of associations and urged them to bring all their students and staffers to the rally. Transportation, he promised, would be provided.
A few days before the last elections, deputy education minister Avi Wortzman, Minister Uri Ariel and candidate for the Knesset Bezalel Smotrich, sent a memo to the heads of those beneficiary organizations. The memo summoned them to an emergency meeting in Jerusalem, where Ariel warned them that if the party didn’t win enough seats, they couldn’t keep the budget that had been raised for them. The room was filled with dozens of officials who receive their regular salary through the Division’s secret pipeline. The organizations were told they needed to devote all of their resources in the near future to support Jewish Home — persuading voters, distributing propaganda materials, transporting voters to the polls, and more.
In short, an Israeli political party used our money, which was designated to develop the periphery, in order to build their political power.
Last February, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, published opinions regarding the activities of the Settlement Division. Silber’s opinions recommend requiring full transparency and implementing a total reform of the Division’s activities, so that it is subject to governmental oversight and compliant with the law. In short: no secret budgets and no strange, mysterious NGOs, without tenders.
The Jewish Home naturally felt under pressure, and during the coalition negotiations Bennet demanded that Netanyahu allow them to keep their favorite secret, the Settlement Division. Once again, members of the “Jewish Home” proved that they care most about their special interest groups.
Do you comprehend what is happening? Money that should be reaching residents of the south in the wake of last summer’s Gaza conflict, and money that should be directed towards repairing Israel’s battered housing market will flow, instead, to the most extreme right-wing political activists.
My friends, for over a year, we have lead the struggle to demand transparency and oversight for the Settlement Division. There is no reason this division deserves a single shekel while it serves as a cover to smuggle public money to cronies. There is no sensible reason that the major beneficiaries of the Settlement Division funds should be those who personally oversee it.
I promise not to rest until the recommendations of the Deputy Attorney General are fully implemented, until we know all that happens with these half a billion shekels that belong to all of us. I will keep fighting until we can ensure that they are distributed in a way that is fair, transparent and straightforward – for the benefit of Israeli society as a whole.