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Ombudsman: Settlement council doctored tenders to reward right-wing NGOs

Yosef Shapira expresses ‘grave concern’ over practices by Binyamin Regional Council that benefited Regavim and Horizon for Settlement

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Yesha Council head Avi Roeh speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on March 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesha Council head Avi Roeh speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on March 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The state comptroller expressed “grave concern” in a report published Tuesday that the West Bank’s largest regional settlement council rigged tenders to award public funds to a pair of right-wing NGOs.

Yosef Shapira accused the Binyamin Regional Council, led by outgoing Yesha settlement umbrella council chairman Avi Roeh, of funneling hundreds of thousands of shekels to two organizations with close ties to Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich. The report was published just two days after the lawmaker introduced legislation bent on limiting the authority of the state comptroller.

In his report, Shapira said the Binyamin Regional Council had “tailored the conditions” by which NGOs could receive financial support from Roeh’s body “so that only specific NGOs could benefit.”

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (R) and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein speak as a State Comptroller’s report is presented at the Knesset, November 21, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The report didn’t name the two NGOs, but based on conversations with various settler officials, The Times of Israel was able to establish their identities. The first is Regavim, an organization that monitors Palestinian and Bedouin construction in Israel and the West Bank. The second is a small group known as Horizon for Settlement, which works to purchase West Bank land for the construction of settlements.

Smotrich founded Regavim in 2006 and served as its chairman up to his election to the Knesset in 2015, while the Horizon for Settlement NGO is registered through the state under his name. Roeh and new Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani also sit on the latter’s board.

The Binyamin Regional Council was included in the report along with several other local councils and municipalities that the State Comptroller audits on a rotational basis.

The West Bank council receives roughly two-thirds of its budget from the government, according to the report. Like all local councils, the Binyamin Regional Council is allowed to use a segment of its budget to finance the activities of NGOs. However, such backing is contingent on proper tenders and the funds being “distributed in an equal manner,” according to the report.

In the case of the Binyamin Regional Council, Shapira wrote that the body created specific criteria for funding eligibility that only Regavim and Horizon for Settlement could meet.

The State Comptroller investigated the council’s activity from 2012 to 2016. During those years, the regional council granted roughly NIS 460,000 ($130,000) annually to Regavim. In 2014, the regional council awarded NIS 300,000 ($85,000) to Horizon for Settlement. That figure roughly accounts for half the annual budget for the organization, which Roeh helped establish, according to the report.

“The conditions set by the Binyamin Council [for funding]… raise the suspicion that they were set up to fit to be compatible with NGO A and NGO B,” Shapira wrote. “It is not surprising that only those organizations sought support from the Council and succeeded in winning it.”

“Establishing such conditions prevents true equality and transparency in the distribution of subsidies and raises the suspicion that extraneous considerations interfered with the determination of the funding criteria,” the report continued.

The report also criticized the Binyamin Regional Council’s transferring of funds to the Yesha Council, which was also headed by Roeh at the time, calling the move “a breach of the public’s trust.”

The Binyamin Regional Council rejected the notion that it had explicitly accused it of doctoring the criteria to aid the two NGOs.

“On the matter of [financial] support, the council works in accordance with the law,” it said. “The criteria for funding were approved by the professional funding committee and the entire council, based a legal opinion that established it was legal and in order. The criteria that were set are equal and any organization that met the criteria and was interested in receiving funding from the council was allowed to apply.”

It said the criteria were expanded in the past year so additional organizations would be eligible.

In a statement, Smotrich denied any connection between the report and a bill he was advancing to limit the state comptroller’s powers. That proposal was shelved by ministers for a month on Sunday.

“The attempt to link the comptroller report published today to my position regarding his job and authority and the bill I’m advancing is an unfounded conspiracy theory,” the Jewish Home lawmaker said in a statement on Tuesday.

He further posited that Regavim emerged from the report as having acted appropriately “with the exception of some speculative and unclear comments that in any case I have nothing to do with.”

In a statement, Regavim denied violating the law.

“There are some local authorities who waste public funds in supporting radical anti-Zionist organizations, and there are those, like the authorities in Judea and Samaria, that see protecting the state’s lands as a public and Zionist value and we are proud of them,” it said.

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