The Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation struck down on Sunday by a narrow margin a bill aimed at increasing transparency in the Jewish National Fund. The bill, presented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, would have allowed the state comptroller to audit the nonprofit organization and publicize its transactions, operations, and financial records.
Four ministers voted in favor of the proposed law and five ministers voted against it.
The vote came in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to charge a special committee with examining the JNF’s private operations and determining whether those operations should be made public.
Following the Ministerial Committee’s decision, Livni stated that the Justice Ministry would attempt to legally revise the JNF’s current status and define it as a public-benefit corporation, a move that would force the JNF by law to make its records public.
“Those who do not want the state comptroller, will get the [Jewish] National Fund as a public-benefit [corporation],” Livni said after the vote.
“The JNF holds authority over operations that are, in essence, significant governmental functions, yet it is devoid of any form of criticism. This is an absurd situation in a democratic country, and it encourages problematic conduct, to say the least.”
Though officially defined as a nonprofit, the JNF has a major say in public issues relating to land ownership in Israel today. The organization, which was originally founded in 1901 as a private company aimed at promoting Jewish settlement in Palestine, currently controls over 600,000 acres of land — nearly 13 percent of Israel’s total territory.
The JNF, which manages its territory through the Israel Land Authority, has been involved in the development of thousands of parks and reservoirs across the country. The organization has also allocated land for agricultural purposes and has been involved in the establishment of several towns and cities.
But despite its major public role, JNF’s financial records are kept under wraps. It is estimated that the organization holds more than NIS 4 billion (about $1,156,738,000) in liquid capital, according to Israeli business magazine the Marker.
“The [decision to keep the JNF's records private] is an unfortunate and regrettable one,” Alona Winograd, the executive director of Israel’s Movement for Freedom of Information, said after Sunday’s ministerial vote.
“The prime minister’s decision to establish a team that will examine the issue, among whom will be a member of the JNF, is ridiculous. The recommendations of such a team are known in advance. It seems that there are some officials who will do all they can to make sure that the JNF remains a body that operates in the dark, without any external oversight.”
Two weeks ago, State Comptroller Joseph Shapiro held a meeting with Netanyahu and requested that the prime minister support a JNF audit.
“From a public standpoint, it is appropriate to apply criticism to the JNF,” Shapiro said. “This will give proper expression to the prime minister’s emphasis on the importance of state control.”