Citing conflicts of interest between Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, green groups are demanding that the government discard a potential arrangement to funnel revenues from the former to the latter.
The proposed plan involves the annual transfer of some NIS 1.2 billion from KKL-JNF to the state’s coffers – with about NIS 200 million going to the INPA. The plan, which has been met with harsh criticism from the INPA itself, would also increase KKL-JNF representatives on the authority’s board of directors from one to three. The INPA, a semi-independent body under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Ministry, has about 10 active board members despite its quota of 19, INPA officials said.
The CEOs of four NGOs – the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Life and Environment, Adam Teva V’Din - Israel Union for Environmental Defense and the Movement for Quality Government – wrote to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Deputy Attorney- General Avi Licht on Sunday, voicing their objections to the plan in question.
“The INPA is responsible for nature conservation and ecosystems and KKL-JNF leans toward development and has significant real estate interests,” the CEOs of four NGOs wrote to Kahlon and Licht on Sunday. “These two organizations have opposite views. This is in fact the state shirking its responsibility to take care of preserving nature in Israel.”
KKL-JNF and the Israeli government have long been negotiating the terms of an agreement that would require the organization to transfer revenues from its annual land sales to the state. In November, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a Finance Ministry proposal mandating this transfer, as part of plans to reduce the country’s budget deficit. That approval occurred a week after KKL-JNF’s decision to sever its relationship with the Israel Lands Authority and manage areas under its jurisdiction independently.
While the INPA operates on public tax funds to manage the country’s nature reserves and national parks, the letter writers described KKL-JNF as a “private company” whose aim is to “preserve the land of the Jewish people.”
The authors accused KKL-JNF of operating with “real estate interests typical of land development” and of marketing its lands for building purposes. Emphasizing how KKL-JNF’s “private interests” may conflict with those of the INPA, the letter describes the negative impact the organization’s involvement could have upon “the gatekeeper of nature and open spaces.”
“It is surprising to us that KKL-JNF would become the body that finances the authority and would even dictate and influence policy through its representation on the board,” the green group CEOs wrote. “This will undermine the independence of the authority and cast a shadow over its role of protecting nature for the general public in Israel and for generations to come.”
Responding to the letter, the Finance Ministry simply said the arrangement is under discussion among relevant government officials, and that an agreement would be presented upon the completion of their work.
As far as the INPA is concerned, the authority is opposing the arrangement due to a fundamental deviation in the organizations’ “basic approach to nature,” an INPA official told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday night.
“There are certain differences between KKLJNF and the INPA,” the INPA representative said.
The official compared the transfer of money and increase in board seats to “buying control” – a method of privatizing the INPA as opposed to nationalizing KKL-JNF. If the INPA would in the future oppose the construction of a village, for example, the official expressed fears that the authority could be accused of voicing such objections simply due to the fact that KKL-JNF would not make money from that specific project.
“We are going to hurt our image,” the representative said. “The image of our governmental organization is extremely important.”
Acknowledging that the INPA and KKL-JNF already work “hand-in-hand” on many projects around the country, the official stressed that such collaboration is different from the union proposed by the government. Meanwhile, although three board seats out of 10 is by no means a majority, KKL-JNF would be able to significantly increase its influence with these seats, the representative continued.
In addition, such a move could cause other offices – such as the Agriculture and Tourism ministries – whose visions differ from that of the INPA to demand more than their single seats, the official added.
“The direct linkage between money and seats on the board is going to cause a lot of conflict of interest,” the representative said.
“It could be wonderful; it could be a way to change KKL-JNF. But this is a risk.”
In response to the objections of both the green groups and the INPA official, a statement from KKL-JNF stressed that the organization “heeded the government’s request to participate in INPA’s budgeting and found it a worthy goal that meets the aims of the organization.”
“The claims listed in this letter do not reflect the activities of KKL-JNF today and ignore the fundamental process of change that KKL-JNF has undertaken over the past decade,” the statement said.
Some of these changes, the statement explained, have been reflected in the organization’s “great commitment to the preservation of biodiversity in Israel and the basis of its activities on scientific studies.” The current plan in question, KKL-JNF said, is an internal Israeli government matter. Should the government choose to “relinquish the assistance it sought from KKL-JNF,” the organization would find other positive uses for the money that would benefit Israeli citizens, continuing to provide access to open spaces free of charge, the statement added.
“The INPA has no reason to fear that its independence will be harmed,” the organization said. “KKL-JNF contributes to various bodies millions of shekels a year, and under the framework of the agreement with the state would be required to fund, beyond the budget of the INPA, government projects amounting to a billion shekels each year.”
Prof. Alon Tal, an expert on environmental policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who sits on the KKL-JNF board, told the Post on Monday that “the few agencies that actually manage open spaces need to cooperate more effectively if we are to provide maximum protection for Israel’s beleaguered ecological systems.” Although Tal is a member of KKLJNF’s board today, he has served leadership roles in some of the green groups that drafted Sunday’s letter, including former chairman of Life and Environment and founding director of Adam Teva V’Din.
Due to the crucial nature of maintaining ecological corridors for “any long-term biodiversity strategy preservation,” Tal said he is “personally in favor of far greater integration and cooperation.”
“I understand the critics’ concerns, but they seem to ignore the profound ethical and operational transformation which has taken place within KKL-JNF regarding the organization’s commitment to protecting Israel’s natural resources and natural systems,” he said. “This commitment is also manifested in our greater reliance on scientific research as the basis for management practices. This is much more than lip services.”
This commitment, Tal explained, can be seen in a number of areas, such as the organization’s increased budget for ecological research, which has risen to about three times that of the Environmental Protection Ministry. He also referred to the recent establishment of a science advisory committee, which contains many independent ecologists and forestry experts. KKL-JNF has also lately emerged as a leader in environmental causes, such as the fight against an oil shale program in the Adullam region, as well as the development of lands around western Jerusalem, Tal added.
“I don’t think that there’s any room for sanctimonious ‘one-upmanship,’” he said.
“We need to work together to make this country healthier for everyone’s future, especially the animals and plants of Eretz Yisrael.”
Niv Elis contributed to this report.