AG’s office to rule on funding new settler visitor center during elections

Right wing politicians approve funding of project without ruling of Attorney General's office.

December 22, 2014 23:05
4 minute read.
E1 area of the West Bank

E1 area of the West Bank. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Attorney-General’s Office is probing the legality of new funding for settlement activity during election period after politicians cried foul when the Knesset Finance Committee advanced a West Bank visitor center this week.

The Elections Committee plans to rule on the matter, according to TheMarker. MK Stav Shaffir (Labor) had complained to it about the Finance Committee votes on settlement funding this month, and asked to halt such funding until the nation goes to the polls on March 17.

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“The state’s tax coffers have become [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s personal ATM,” charged Shaffir, a Finance Committee member.

“Such objections are political hypocrisy,” Yigal Dilmoni, who has taken a leave from his role as deputy head of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip to run for the Knesset on the Bayit Yehudi platform, charged on Tuesday.

Among the issues the Attorney- General’s Office is examining is the legality of the Finance Ministry’s attempts to secure NIS 12.8 million to build a visitor center in the Barkan Industrial Park, part of a group of West Bank settlements that make up the Ariel bloc.

Last week, the Finance Ministry asked the Knesset Finance Committee to approve funding for the project, but it did not check with the Attorney-General’s Office to see if the monetary request fell within the election guidelines.

The Finance Ministry is now under the auspices of Netanyahu.

Left-wing politicians on the Finance Committee charged that the prime minister had advanced the project to cater to right-wing voters ahead of the election.

Tempers flared on Sunday, when right-wing politicians approved the funding at the Finance Committee meeting, even though they knew that the Attorney-General’s Office had not ruled on the matter.

“This is absolutely illegal,” yelled out left-wing committee members as their peers held up their hands to vote despite the shouting match that broke out around them.

The funds were only a small fraction of the NIS 8.1 billion the Finance Committee approved, the bulk of which, NIS 5.7b., went to the country’s health services, followed by NIS 940m. for security issues related to last summer’s Gaza military operation.

Left-wing Finance Committee members balked at the Barkan project, which they said was the kind of non-essential item with political overtones that should not be approved in an election season.

“It was outrageous,” MK Erel Margalit (Labor) told The Jerusalem Post.

The funding request was not even backed by the Knesset legal adviser, Margalit said.

It was approved, he said, based on a shaky legal opinion from the Finance Ministry that a vote could be held, but that the money could not yet be released for the project.

It’s the type of political “hijacking” that discredits the committee, Margalit said, adding that it is an “end-of-the-year gift for the settlers.”

Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) said that the committee had the legal right to vote on the matter, and had received legal advice on that score.

It was not customary, in any event, to question the legality of a government-backed funding request, he added.

“Residents of Judea and Samaria have equal rights and responsibilities,” and it is cynical to attack funding for them, Slomiansky said.

A committee spokesman added that it was the Finance Committee’s responsibility to ensure that its monetary requests were legal.

Yossi Dagan, the acting head of the Samaria Regional Council, charged that only left-wing politicians were playing election politics with the Barkan project.

Funding for the Barkan visitor center was approved over a year ago but was delayed for technical and political reasons, he said.

The Finance Committee approved scores of projects on Sunday, including in the Negev and the Galilee, without anyone worrying about election politics, Dagan said.

“Unfortunately, every shekel that is justly approved for Judea and Samaria is met with a chorus of slanderous charges by extremist left-wing politicians,” he said.

The Barkan project is not the only issue. The Finance Committee also approved a budgetary transfer of NIS 80m. to West Bank settlements two weeks ago, after the election cycle had begun.

Shaffir charged that NIS 33m.

of that sum were earmarked for activity in new settlements.

Proper procedure had not been followed because information about the transfer was handed over to committee members only hours before the vote, she said.

Dilmoni said that the transfer was a routine end-of-year procedure, similar to what Yair Lapid had approved the year before as finance minister.

Since leaving office, Lapid has spoken openly against funding for isolated settlements, turning to the Attorney-General’s Office to prevent the Defense Ministry from building two West Bank roads and a public building in Yitzhar.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Army Radio earlier this week that coalition obligations had prevented him from moving on the projects until now.

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