Two months ago, Israeli Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber submitted a detailed legal opinion concerning severe mismanagement in the Settlement Division. In response, right-wing public officials and nonprofits launched a personal smear campaign against her. Underlying the aggressive attack is grave concern that the settler movement might lose the secret funding conduit that has served its political interests for years. This assault calls for firm condemnation and action to prevent political actors from sowing fear among state institutions and civil servants.
Recent weeks in Israel have seen an escalation in the right-wing battle against the Attorney General’s Office, in response to his decision regarding the Settlement Division. The Right is waging a broad campaign carried out by the leadership of national-religious party HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), nonprofits, and affiliated journalists. The goal of the campaign is to have the government dismiss the legal opinion submitted by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber last February, in which she recommended that the state stop funding the Settlement Division in its current structure.1
From the moment the opinion was published, the right-wing settler camp launched a smear campaign against Adv. Zilber that included personal slander, disseminating false information, and openly working to weaken the status of the Attorney General’s Office. This attack has blatantly ignored the arguments detailed in the important legal opinion, which is meant to end years of willful neglect that have made the Settlement Division a breeding ground for mismanagement, corruption, and embezzlement of public funds.
For many years, the Settlement Division has served as a secret arm of the Israeli government for construction in the Occupied Territories. Recently, it also started functioning as a conduit for massive funding of right-wing nonprofits and religious activism centers.2 Officially, the division operates under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). However, it relies entirely on state funding and answers directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. This arrangement allows the division to evade parliamentary, legal, and public scrutiny.
In her legal opinion, Deputy Attorney General Zilber forbade any further unsupervised funding of the division, either through the general budget or via additional transfers. She emphasized that the government must address the division as an operative function only, in keeping with the Mandatory Tenders Law and with norms of transparency and good governance.
Zilber noted that over time, the government withdrew from its responsibility to decide Israel’s settlement policy and handed increasing authority over these matters to the division. As a result, the division sets settlement priorities, allocates funds, and shapes policy – all fundamental government duties. The transfer of these authorities constitutes “forbidden delegation of power” to a non-government entity and compromises governability, as the state is no longer in full control of Israeli settlement activity.3
Zilber further described how over the years, the division became the government’s “backyard” – a twilight zone enabling illegal governmental activity. In that capacity, the division has become a hotbed for the development of “structural pathologies”. She added that “the massive funding of the division was allocated without transparency, based on internal criteria, some of which are applied on a voluntary basis only, and without effective supervision”.4
The deputy attorney general’s recommendations pose a threat to the heart and soul of the settler movement – a sector that particularly enjoys the division’s services. Indeed, all attempts in recent years to make the division’s activities transparent were thwarted thanks to the efforts of right-wing settler actors who rallied in protection of their sectorial interests – even at the cost of severe harm to the rule of law and to public interest.5
In recent months, Israel’s financial media has extensively covered the Settlement Division. One reason is Molad’s September 2014 report, which exposed the division’s allocation of direct funds based on official Finance Ministry figures.6 Molad found unequivocal evidence for the narrow political interests guiding the allocation hundreds of millions of shekels that belong to the Israeli public.
The Settlement Division is bound by law to care for Israel’s socially and geographically underprivileged areas, from the Galilee in the north to the Negev in the south. In practice, in the first six months of 2014, the division funneled 74.5% of its direct funding of local authorities and communities to the West Bank; rural communities within Israel proper were neglected, while settlements beyond the Green Line enjoyed extremely generous bonuses. For example, the settlement of Beit El alone received almost 51.5 million shekels (some 14 million USD) – more than all beneficiaries in the Galilee and Negev put together.
The report also exposed that the division transferred tens of millions of shekels to nonprofits run by close associates of national-religious party HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home). These include religious activist centers (“garin torani”) that operate in wealthy communities in central Israel and work primarily to proselytize. Other nonprofits funded by the division functioned as active local branches of the Jewish Home and openly acted to broaden the party’s electoral base. Many of them aided the party on Election Day, in blatant breach of the law.7 It is worth emphasizing again that all this political activity is directly paid for by the Israeli taxpayer. After the findings were published by the media, the impending closure of the unit within the Settlement Division responsible for these religious activist centers was announced.8
Also, in late 2014, investigators from the Lahav 433 Anti-Fraud Unit raided the division’s offices, on the suspicion that many of the corruption affairs tied to senior members of the Yisrael Beiteinu party were carried out using the division as a secret funding conduit.9 In other words, the fact that the division operates in the dark allows its leaders to engage in illicit activity while embezzling public funds.
The blatant organized campaign against Deputy State Attorney Zilber is no accident: it could have far-reaching implications beyond the issue at hand. A targeted attack on civil servants aimed at isolating and labelling them can serve as a warning sign to other state employees trying to supervise government activity. We believe that such attacks must be condemned loud and clear, and that action must be taken to prevent narrow political interests from sowing fear in the legal institutions of the State of Israel.
1 Read the legal opinion here (in Hebrew): http://tinyurl.com/pas4tvn.
2 See (in Hebrew): http://www.themarker.com/markerweek/1.2527908.
4 Freely translated.
5 Zvi Zrahiya, “Knesset’s bid to increase transparency at WZO’s settlement arm fails”, Ha’aretz, April 3, 2014, http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/.premium-1.583694.
6 See Molad report: http://www.molad.org/en/articles/slush-fund.
7 Nahum Barnea, Yedioth Ahronoth weekend supplement, March 14, 2015 (in Hebrew) http://tinyurl.com/qg98s6p.
8 Nimrod Bousso, Ha’aretz, February 5, 2015 (in Hebrew) http://www.themarker.com/realestate/1.2558058.
9 “Corruption probe ensnares WZO's Settlement Division”, Roni Singer, Ynetnews, Jan. 2, 2015, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4610722,00.html.