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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A High Court ruling Sunday paved the way for local authorities in Judea and Samaria to use state funds to fight any future withdrawal plans, even as it warned that they may face financial penalties by doing so.
The ruling was hailed as a victory by both the petitioner, Peace Now, and the respondent, the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
Peace Now petitioned the court asking to prevent local authorities in Judea and Samaria from contributing funds to the Council which had been earmarked for local needs. They argued that local Judea and Samaria communities had acted illegally when they transferred funds from their operating budgets into the political campaign waged by the Council against last summer's pullout from Gaza and four northern Samaria communities.
Peace Now complained that local authorities were not entitled to spend such money on national political issues and that their mandate was to deal with local affairs. The state agreed with the petitioners.
In addition to the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the respondents included the regional councils of Gush Etzion, Har Hebron, Mateh Binyamin, Shomron, the Betar Illit Municipal Council and the local councils of Kedumim and Kiryat Arba, all of which contributed money to the Council.
The petitioners argued that the High Court had handed down a ruling in 1995, known as the Greenberg Decision, whereby local authorities could spend money on a national issue if the issue had a special impact on them. The petition filed at that time challenged the right of Golan Heights communities to contribute money to the campaign waged by the Council of Communities against a government plan to withdraw from the Golan.
A panel of five justices heard the Peace Now petition. They included Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, retired Justice Mishael Cheshin, Elyakim Rubinstein, Dorit Beinish and Asher Grunis. Three of the justices, Rubinstein, Barak and Grunis ruled that the Greenberg decision applied to the communities in Judea and Samaria, because those living in these communities believed that even though the disengagement did not apply directly to them, the program was only the first step in a process which would eventually threaten their existence as well.
On the other hand, all the justices except Rubinstein agreed that the state was entitled to subtract from its share of the budget of the local authorities the same sum of money that the authority had donated to the Council.
For the Council, which had weathered continued accusations of illegal activity with respect to its battle against the state's Disengagement Plan, the ruling was a welcome relief.
"Not only does this ruling say that our battle for Gaza was legal, but it legalizes our future battle as well," said Binyamin Regional Council head Pinchas Wallerstein, who was one of the defendants in the case.
The issue of legality is very important for the Council, said its spokeswoman Emily Amrusy. It's important to work within the framework of the law even when opposing a state plan, she added.
Wallerstein said he wasn't concerned by the threat that the state could take that sum out of its allocation to the local government's budget in the next year.
It's unlikely to do so, given the battle has moved from Gaza to Judea and Samaria and the communities are fighting for their existence, he said.
Ariel Mayor Ron Nahman, however, took seriously the threat of funding loss and felt the ruling could only bode ill for communities in Judea and Samaria. Angered by the possibility that the state could penalize local government for acting in what it perceived as the best interests of its citizens, he blasted the decision as "anti-democratic."
"The court made its decision to make everyone happy, but its a mistake," said Nahman. Government workers have the right to strike at a cost to the state, in opposition to a state budgetary plan, said Nahman. Who pays for the strikes in the ports and at Ben-Gurion International Airport, he asked.
Why can't a local government use state funds to equally battle a program which it believes is harmful to its residents, even if it sponsored by the state, Nahman asked. "If the government decides to kill me, I should be able to defend myself," he said. "What am I suppose to do, say thank you," Nahman added.
Betar Illit Mayor Yitzhak Pindruf said he didn't believe the state would dock money from the local governments, adding that in his case, the money given to the Council of Jewish Communities was for services other than the anti-disengagement battle such as security guards that are not provided by the government.
Peace Now attorney Joseph Benkel said that the point of the ruling was to force communities to proves that state funds it received were indeed being used for municipal services such as education or transportation for citizens, and not to battle a state plan. Now the onus is on the communities to account for how the state's money is spent, Benkel said.
The government now has the right, should it chose to do so, to deduct state funds spent to fight Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan from future budgets, he added.
Former Interior Minister Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor), who had supported the Peace Now petition, urged Interior Minister Roni Bar-On (Kadima) to make cuts in cases where state funds are used to fight withdrawals.
"The money is for municipal purposes and it's not OK to use it as a political tool," he said, adding that he respected the compromise position taken by the court.
Bar-On's office said he was studying the matter.
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