On Tuesday, the government went head-to-head with one of the premier Jewish world fund-raising organizations, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, over control of its revenues.Until the dust settles, KKL-JNF has notified the Israel Lands Authority that it is freezing the marketing and development of housing projects on land that it owns.“The JNF sells lands every year and receives billions of shekels in return. It is very important that this money be channeled to the needs of the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.“These needs cannot wait,” he added, speaking at an emergency government meeting in the morning.Legislation was advanced at the meeting to ensure that KKL-JNF annually transfers 80% of its revenues to the Finance Ministry to help fund state-run national infrastructure projects, or risk losing its tax exempt status.
Outside of the meeting, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) accused the coalition of trying to destroy the 115-year-old organization as a political move to strengthen Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party.“I don’t understand the coalition’s eagerness for the forced lighting-strike move that gives billions to the Kulanu party while dealing a fatal blow to KKL-JNF,” Smotrich said.KKL-JNF World Chairman Dany Atar tweeted a response: “Mr. Prime Minister, KKL-JNF invests billions every year in strengthening the periphery, education and the environment. It’s a shame that you, Bibi, are fulfilling [Joint List MK Jamal] Zahalka’s dream of dismantling the JNF,” Atar wrote.The KKL-JNF reached an agreement with the government last year to make a one-time transfer of NIS 2.2 billion to the Finance Ministry. The government in turn would not ask for any more money until 2021, the KKL-JNF explained.The Finance Ministry asked the organization to make an additional NIS 2b. payment over two years. The KKL-JNF directorate only authorized NIS 1b. payment for 2018.The Finance Ministry and the government responded with the sudden emergency meeting followed by a Finance Committee session in the Knesset in the afternoon.There, Smotrich, who is a committee member, found an unusual ally in MK Mickey Rosenthal of the Zionist Union who said that the government’s actions were a “clear violation” of the 2021 agreement.“This is not the way to run a state,” Rosenthal said, adding that organizations shouldn’t have to face a draconian order to transfer money to the state or be forced to pay taxes.A KKL-JNF deputy chairman, Ernan Fellman, said, “We did not sign an agreement with a street vendor but with the Israeli government. 115 years of Zionist activity can end today. The JNF does not have the option of transferring this sum.”Finance Ministry director-general Shai Babad defended the actions of the government and his office, explaining that it had tried with little success to get the KKL-JNF to transfer funds and was treated “shamefully.” In the end, a decision was made to return to the legislative process.“The government’s unequivocal position was reaffirmed today. It is the government of Israel that must divide the JNF’s profits and decide what the national priorities are.”Earlier in the day at the government meeting Netanyahu said, “The State of Israel is a developed and developing country. It has to invest huge sums in infrastructure and other needs.”The prime minister said that he respected the work the organization has done for the State of Israel and the Jewish people since its inception in 1901, “But today it is clearer than ever that the future of the Jewish people is strongly bound to the future of the State of Israel. It is here that the fate and future of the Jewish people will be decided. It is here that the fate and future of the Jewish people will be determined,” he said.Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) and Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz (Likud) voted against the legislation. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) was absent during the vote.The World Zionist Organization plans to hold an emergency meeting on the issue in Israel on Thursday and said it would not comment further on the matter until the meeting.Tamara Zieve contributed to this report.
Interview with KKL-JNF Chairman Efi Stenzler