Right-wing NGO using Israeli state funds to fight gov't in High Court

Questions raised about Smotrich, W. Bank head conflicts of interest

State Comptroller Yosef Shapria reads a statement upon submitting a report on the right-wing NGO Regavim  (photo credit: YITZHAK HARARI)
State Comptroller Yosef Shapria reads a statement upon submitting a report on the right-wing NGO Regavim
(photo credit: YITZHAK HARARI)
The right-wing NGO Regavim is using millions of state funds to file petitions against the government in the High Court of Justice, the State Comptroller revealed in a special report on local government issues.
On Tuesday, Regavim said it is “a major force in protecting and preserving Israel’s State land, combating illegal construction throughout Israel, and defending Israel’s natural resources against misuse and abuse.”
Most of its legal actions are filed against alleged illegal construction by Palestinians in the West Bank, Beduins in the South and by east Jerusalem Arabs or against the state for an alleged failure to evict them.
In addition, Joseph Shapira said that there is an improper overlap of personnel between Regavim and the Binyamin Regional Council, who decides which NGOs are awarded funds and has been awarding Regavim millions.
The report cites a similar problematic personnel overlap between the council and, Horizon for Settlement, another NGO that the council has awarded significant funds to.
Though not explicitly in the report, there have been media implications i that a new bill, in which Bezalel Smotrich has proposed to trim the wings of the comptroller, was timed as payback for Shapira going after Regavim. The Bayit Yehudi MK helped found the NGO, though he is no longer formally involved.
Neither Regavim nor Horizon for Settlement are actually named as such in the report, referred to instead as NGO A and NGO B, but the descriptions of their activities in the report “outed” the organizations and Regavim have pushed back hard against the report’s conclusions.
Generally, the report also covers a range of possible crimes – by workers in the Beit Shemesh municipality, construction violations in Herzliya, Rahat, Ashkelon and Bnei Brak – of violations by municipal corporation board members use of public funds and of local government violations of citizens’ privacy by improper use of their personal data.
More specifically regarding the NGOs, the comptroller wrote that the council had stacked the process for awarding funds in favor of Regavim by tailoring its conditions for receiving funds to the NGO’s work. From 2006-2012, the council’s budget was NIS 1.2 billion.
For example, the report said that the council set conditions for receiving funds including: “corporate bodies which act to preserve land” and which “take part in no fewer than 15 legal actions connected to this issue.”
In Regavim’s requests to the council for funds in 2015 to 2016, it “attached a list of 15 petitions to the High Court, all of which were filed by the NGO against the State. As such, the council in practice set filing petitions against the State as a condition for receipt of funds.”
Further, the report said, “This raised difficulties since the state funds 62% to 67% of the council’s budget,” with Regavim receiving an average of NIS 460,00 each year from the council from 2006 to 2012.
Regarding overlapping personnel, the council’s head, Avi Roeh, as well as a key aide, were among the founders of Horizon for Settlement, and the aide was the head of Regavim since January 2010, said the report.
Shapira wrote that “the involvement of the council head and his aide in the two NGOs strengthens the suspicion that the conditions for funding set by the council were tailored to ensure that those specific NGOs would get the funding.”
The report said that Roeh’s participation in both the council and an NGO it funded was a clear violation of conflict of interest principles.
The comptroller does not allege any scheme by Roeh or the aide to enrich themselves.
Shapira only said that state funds should not be used to fight state policies and that conflicts of interest and improper procedures may carry unspecified consequences for Roeh and his aide and may invalidate Regavim from continuing to receive funds from the council. The report also noted other violations in selecting vendors to provide busing and renovation services for which the vendors received around NIS 485 million, but without proper competitive bidding processes and proper legal sign offs and oversight.
Regavim responded to the comptroller’s report with a detailed statement: “While the Tel Aviv Municipality spends hundreds of thousands of Shekels of taxpayers’ money each year funding radical, anti-Zionist organizations, including a host of organizations that support and defend illegal migrants from Africa, ‘Doctors for Human Rights,’ performances of The Jaffa Theater that promote the ‘Nakba’ narrative, and the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), we at Regavim take pride in the fact that local authorities in Judea and Samaria actively promote the Zionist ideal of protecting State lands,” it said.
It continued, “The High Court of Justice has long permitted local authorities and municipalities to support public activism in matters of national and local public policy, so long as the rules of proper governance are upheld.”
Moreover, it said, “the insinuation that there is some improper connection between the support of the Binyamin Local Authority and the fact that Regavim’s Director General served in the past as the Assistant to the Mayor is unfounded and indefensible; the Binyamin Local Authority is one of many municipalities that support Regavim’s activities, some to a much greater extent. Furthermore, the activities of Regavim’s director-general are carried out according to directives set out by legal counsel, in strict accordance with guidelines that prevent conflicts of interest or misrepresentation.”
In addition, Regavim wrote that it “invests tremendous effort in promoting good governance, which makes it only natural that we would appeal to the courts against governmental bodies that have been negligent in carrying out their duties… Only a few days ago, the High Court of Justice praised a motion brought by Regavim… against illegal construction and seizure of land. In its decision, the High Court stated that ‘indeed, motions of this kind are helpful in shining a spotlight on the area.’” Likewise, in the report the council rejected the criticism, saying that the NGOs in question simply were engaging in missions which were important to the council.
Further, it said that the lack of institutional separation between the council and the NGOs derived from the unique challenges the council faces in the West Bank which would make such separation artificial.
That said, the council said it would make adjustments to the process for awarding funds to NGOs.
Smotrich responded to implications that his new bill to restrict aspects of the comptroller’s powers calling them “a preposterous conspiracy.”
He said his “debate with the comptroller regarding his role and authority has been running already for over a year” relating to other issues impacting the West Bank in June 2016.
The Bayit Yehudi MK said he ceased all activity regarding Regavim upon joining the Knesset in March 2015 and asked rhetorically why no one is questioning if the comptroller issued the report to take revenge on him.
State Control Committee chairwoman MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) said that those like Smotrich and his allies who were trying to tie the comptroller’s hands are the same ones who are “acting as if there is no law and no judge.”
She thanked Kulanu party head Moshe Kahlon and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman for helping block a vote on Smotrich’s initiative earlier this week – though the issue may return for another ministerial vote in the future.
Meretz MK Mossi Raz called for a criminal investigation into Smotrich.