Attorney general challenges budget spike for settlements body

Attorney general challenges budget spike for settlements body

Legal wrangling may force changes to nongovernmental agency that funds and plans West Bank settlements

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90, Pool)
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90, Pool)

The coalition agreement between Likud and Jewish Home is facing a challenge in the High Court of Justice — and from the government’s own attorney general.

The agreement gives Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, sworn in Thursday as Israel’s new agriculture minister, control over the Settlement Division, a nongovernmental body formally under the aegis of the World Zionist Organization but which has been de facto administered from the Prime Minister’s Office.

According to the Ynet news site, Dena Zilber, deputy attorney general for legislation, wrote in a legal opinion in February that the powers given to the Settlement Division, including planning and funding of settlements and funneling state funds to third-party organizations, cannot be left in the hands of a nongovernmental body.

“In accordance with this, the state must end the direct budget for the Settlement Division, whether as part of the state budget or in other manners of direct funds transfer,” Zilber wrote.

The latest coalition agreement promises in clause 67.1 a NIS 50-million increase to the Settlement Division under Ariel.

At issue is not the planning or funding of West Bank settlements as such, but whether government bodies can outsource these decisions to nongovernmental agencies. The coalition agreement with Jewish Home also calls for establishing a government committee to reexamine the operations of the Settlement Division — a suggestion welcomed by the Attorney General’s Office.

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on filed a High Court of Justice petition against the budget increase earlier this week, according to Ynet, forcing the Attorney General’s Office to revisit the issue before the High Court.

On Wednesday, Zilber notified Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit that the budget increase may violate the law as it was understood in her February opinion, and so could not be carried out. And on Thursday, in his preliminary response to the court, Weinstein urged the justices to overturn the budget increase.

Pending the court’s decision, the government may still push through the added funds, but in the absence of the legal backing of the attorney general, it may have to do so through Knesset legislation — a dicey proposition in a parliament where the ruling coalition has a mere 61-59 majority.

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