Cabinet seeks to limit Barak’s say on settlements

Gov't to move WZO's Rural Settlement Division under the direct control of Prime Minister's Office, as part of Independence's coalition agreement.

West Bank security fence barrier wall settlement 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
West Bank security fence barrier wall settlement 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The cabinet moved on Sunday to curtail Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s authority over certain aspects of settlement development as well as some parts of the security budget.
Pending Knesset approval, the cabinet agreed to relocate the World Zionist Organization’s Rural Settlement Division from the Agriculture Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office, in a move widely viewed as an effort to limit Barak’s influence over settlement development in the West Bank.
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Once the Knesset approves the move, the division would no longer need Barak’s permission to move ahead with government- approved infrastructure, agriculture and other development projects. The defense minister, however, retains his authority over the construction of buildings.
The initiative was part of the coalition’s agreement with the newly formed Independence Party, and was first announced in January. It was done at the request of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu).
Discussions to move the Rural Settlement Division, however, had begun around the time of the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction, when Barak was still the head of the Labor Party.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon (Independence) told Israel Radio that no mention had been made at the time the agreement was reached of stripping Barak of any powers.
Yuli Edelstein (Likud), the minister of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs, however, told The Jerusalem Post that it had always been clear that Barak would lose his authority over the division once it was lodged in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Separately, the cabinet agreed that Barak would no longer have budgetary responsibility for units in the Prime Minister’s Office related to the security of the state and its citizens.
Pending Knesset approval, that responsibility now lies with the Prime Minister’s Office.
Technically, the Settlement Division is part of a non-governmental agency, the World Zionist Organization. It has been contracted since 1967 to implement government-funded projects in the West Bank, and after the Olso Accords, in Area C (under full Israeli control) of the West Bank. It was always housed within the Prime Minister’s Office.
In the last decade, steps have been taken to change the division’s mission and focus. More than seven years ago, the Settlement Division was given responsibility for developing infrastructures in the Negev and the Galilee. Its budget is now split between the Negev, the Galilee and Area C.
In 2007, the division was moved from the Prime Minister’s Office to the then Labor-led Agriculture Ministry (Simhon was minister), when Ehud Olmert was prime minister.
At the time, it was believed that the shift to a Labor-led ministry would help shift the division’s focus from the West Bank to the Negev and the Galilee.
In a cabinet decision from July 2009 dealing with the activities of this division, it was decided that all of its activities in Judea and Samaria, including in the Jordan Valley, would first have to be brought to both the prime minister and the defense minister for approval.
Sunday’s decision, however, reduces the authority given to the defense minister and states instead that all activities in these areas need to be done “in coordination” with the defense minister, but do not need his approval.
Barak is abroad and did not attend Sunday’s cabinet meeting, and his efforts to push off discussion on the matter until he returns were unsuccessful.
Simhon, who was angry that the Prime Minister’s Office refused Barak’s request, said that the division was most effective when in the Agriculture Ministry.
Simhon said Barak was not upset by the move, because as the defense minister he was still the “sovereign power” in the West Bank.
The head of the settlement division, Danny Kritchman, told the Post, however, that the move was positive, because the bureaucracy in the Agriculture Ministry had hampered its work. “It was impossible,” he said.
In the Prime Minister’s Office, the division would work with the director-general, Kritchman said.
He said that all the division’s projects in the West Bank were government-approved and on state land. Kritchman added that the division was not involved with the development of the unauthorized outposts.
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said the move to the Prime Minister’s Office had very few practical implications.
Dayan is among those who, in an effort to advance thousands of stalled construction housing units, would like to see Barak stripped of his powers to approve settlement building.
“The decision today does not change the situation,” he said.
But MK Danny Danon (Likud) said he was hopeful that it was the first step toward limiting Barak’s powers with regard to settlement construction.