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Gantz backs Daniel Atar for second term at KKL-JNF helm

Support for controversial incumbent causes consternation among Blue and White supporters of Zeev Bielski, disappointment among environmentalists wanting Alon Tal for the job

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and KKL-JNF head Daniel Atar plant a tree for Tu B'Shvat at the US ambassador's residence in Jerusalem, February 12, 2020. (Rafi Ben Hakoon/KKL-JNF)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and KKL-JNF head Daniel Atar plant a tree for Tu B'Shvat at the US ambassador's residence in Jerusalem, February 12, 2020. (Rafi Ben Hakoon/KKL-JNF)

Blue and White party head Benny Gantz decided Monday night to throw his weight behind the reelection of Daniel Atar, as chairman of the KKL JNF Jewish National Fund for another five years.

In supporting the controversial former Labor lawmaker, Gantz rejected pressure from within his own party to back Zeev Bielsky for the job. Bielsky is a former mayor and ex-MK who in the past has led both the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. The Blue and White leader and defense minister’s decision was also a blow for environmentalists, who wanted Alon Tal for the job.

KKL, established in 1901 to buy and develop land for Jewish settlement and best known for the hundreds of millions of trees it has planted throughout Israel, serves as the Jewish people’s custodian for 13 percent of the land in Israel. A kind of nonprofit officially registered as a company for the benefit of the public, it works in the fields of forestry, water, education, community development, tourism, and research and development.

It is a major environmental force in Israel, worth billions of shekels, only a fraction of which comes from fundraising. KKL’s 2019 financial report (in Hebrew) shows that it spent NIS 85 million ($25 million) while raising just under NIS 93 million ($27.5) million). Its wealth, and the eager attempts by governments to get hold of some of these riches, offer massive clout to whoever sits in the chairperson’s seat.

A cyclist on a bike path in the Jerusalem forest, May 3, 2018. (Courtesy JNF/KKL)

KKL’s leadership is usually decided based on political considerations.

Earlier this year, though, 108 ecologists, environmental scientists, sociologists, political scientists, environmental health experts and others backed Tal for the position. In his long career as an environmental activist and academic, Tal, who immigrated to Israel from the US 40 years ago, founded the legal advocacy nonprofit Adam Teva V’Din and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel, and has chaired the organization Life and Environment. Formerly active in KKL, he received the Environment Ministry’s lifetime achievement award in 2008 in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary.

Illustrative: Enjoying a walk in a KKL JNF Jewish National fund forest outside Jerusalem, April 21, 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90).

Atar is a former head of the Gilboa Regional Council in northern Israel, who has a controversial record. In 2009, while serving as head of the regional council, he was detained (but not charged) as part of a probe into suspected fraud and breach of trust there.

In 2015, when he became KKL chair, the Haaretz newspaper reported that during his tenure at the council, the State Comptroller had found evidence in two reports of surplus outlays linked to the purchase of vehicles, vacation days given to senior officials, reimbursements for job-related expenses, and the purchase of refreshments for visitors to the council’s offices.

In January 2019, a document compiled by an investigator on behalf of the Justice Ministry’s Registrar of Trusts reportedly alleged, among other things, that at the KKL, Atar was involved in dozens of appointments of political cronies and other associates, as well as sponsorship deals said to run contrary to KKL rules, and mismanagement. Drafts have been going backwards and forwards between the two bodies and “substantial updates” have already been made according to the Justice Ministry.

KKL said that following its response to the initial draft, “many issues raised in the original report were omitted from the revised [version]” which was resubmitted to KKL in August.

“KKL-JNF is currently preparing a detailed response to the revised draft and we firmly believe that additional claims and allegations that still remain in the revised draft will be ultimately omitted from the final report since they are either mispresented or unfounded,” a statement said.

Atar has also been implicated — although he has denied involvement — in another emerging scandal involving the spending of more than NIS 100 million ($30 million) on land deals in the West Bank, without the knowledge of KKL’s board of directors.

This January, prosecutors decided to fine Atar and his family for illegally building on public land next to their home.

World Zionist Congress to vote October 20

On October 20, delegates elected to the World Zionist Congress (the legislative body of the World Zionist Organization) will meet to vote for posts in the WZO, Jewish Agency, KKL and other affiliates. Together, these, bodies allocate nearly $1 billion annually to organizations in Israel and the Jewish world.

Chairman of KKL-Jewish National Fund Danny Atar in Jerusalem on July 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

KKL Israel’s 37-member directorate is composed of appointees who reflect the division of power on the executive of the World Zionist Organization, its parent body.

This year, the overall balance of power has been complicated by a rift within Likud, Israel’s ruling party, which in total, has succeeded in winning the allegiance of 115 out of 521 conference delegates.

Likud MK Miki Zohar reacts during a meeting at the Knesset, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Lawmaker Miki Zohar, Knesset coalition head and a close associate of the Prime Minister, tried but failed to be elected head of World Likud but has reportedly refused to bow to the winner, WZO Vice Chairman Yaakov Hagoel. World Likud wants Hagoel to take the KKL chairman’s position. Zohar is pressing Likud delegates to vote instead for Likud MK Haim Katz, despite criminal charges against him.

Katz chairs the Knesset Labor and Social Affairs Committee, having been forced to leave his post as social welfare minister to face charges of fraud and breach of trust. The talk is that if Katz is elected head of KKL, former agriculture minister and pro-settler Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel will serve as director.

Likud MK Haim Katz attends a debate on his request for immunity at the Knesset House Committee, January 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White, now allied with Labor, is trying to form a coalition with Zohar’s faction, according to the Calcalist business newspaper, and then with Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beytenu. But if this happens Zohar will have a stronger hand than Blue and White on the choice of KKL’s next chair.

Until Monday night’s bombshell, Gantz had been reportedly seeking a coalition with Yaakov Hagoel’s World Likud,  Yisrael Beytenu, Hapoel Mizrachi, and centrist and left-of-center parties and groups such as Yesh Atid, Meretz and the Reform and Conservative religious movements.

Calcalist reported that Gantz’s change of heart was aimed at neutralizing a parallel attempt by Hapoel Mizrachi and Yesh Atid to back a rotating KKL chairmanship that would start with the former’s candidate, Avraham Duvdevani, currently WZO chairman and a former co-chair of KKL, followed by Yesh Atid’s candidate, the former general MK Elazar Stern.

Gantz and Labor also want Reform and Conservative movements on board but these have not yet committed.

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