On Sunday, the Netanyahu cabinet is expected to liberate an important tool for the reclamation and development of Israeli lands on either side of the “green line,” as the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization will come under tighter government control and at the same time increase its contribution to Jewish communities, Israeli media reported Friday.
Two years ago, Deputy AG Dina Zilber issued a harsh critique of the Settlement Division, accusing it of running a murky operation, especially in Judea and Samaria, outside the control of Israeli governments, mostly due to its status as a private entity. As a result, the Justice Ministry, then under one of the Jewish settlement enterprise’s worst enemies, Tzipi Livni, recommended that the next government (which Tzipi expected to head) dismantle the division by blocking its state budget. Without a budget, the division was expected to wither and die.
On Sunday, apparently, the same Zionist instrument of vitality will roar back to life, with a budget just short of $10 million, to be distributed equally among the Jewish communities of the Negev, Galilee, and Judea and Samaria. In addition, the Settlement Division will be empowered to offer solutions to stressed communities, especially in the periphery. No such first-aid government entity exists today.
The Zilber report was attacked not only by the rightwing parties, but also by communities that are associated with Tzipi Livni’s Labor party, alongside the Gaza border and down in the Jordan Valley. In fact, after the elections that saw Livni retreat to the opposition benches, several of her own party MKs supported a bill submitted by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), enabling the government to delegate its power to the Settlement Division. Zilber, a civil servant, lobbied against the bill, which passed in three plenum votes. The eager bureaucrat was later rebuked by her new boss, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), for her acting against the expressed will of the elected officials above her.
The layout of the revived Settlement Division which will be discussed by the cabinet on Sunday will define it as an expert, consulting entity which both counsels the government on settlement issues and carries out specific government assignments. For the first time, the division is expected to be able to act within urban communities in the rural sectors, when in the past it was limited to working with the regional councils. Its policy will no longer be shaped by the division, but instead by the Agriculture Minister, Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi).
One of Zilber’s criticisms was taken seriously by the designers of the renewed Settlement Division — the need for transparency. To that end, it will be placed under the supervision of the Agriculture Ministry’s Accountant General and Legal Counsel. It will also have to comply with Israel’s Freedom of Information Act.
With all those provisos in place, the Settlement Division will be empowered to plan and establish new communities, pave roads, lay down infrastructure, manage mobile homes, and strengthen and rehabilitate communities in need. The division will also manage the lands of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria until such time as a more permanent legal solution is reached.
Minister Ariel, who has been a major force behind the efforts to revive the division, told Makor Rishon on Thursday that “in the past few years there have been many different attempts by judicial entities to lock down the Settlement Division which endeavors to develop periphery communities across the land. I believe and hope that once the Settlement Division returns to full capacity the regional councils and the local residents will once again receive solutions to their enormous needs.”