JNF assembly approves land swap in disputed vote

Opposition says mismarked ballots swung result.

The Jewish National Fund's General Assembly voted in favor of a 70,000-dunam (7,000-hectare) land swap with the state yesterday, in a 62-55 vote with 13 abstentions. The deal's opponents said the outcome was the result of human error, since the 13 abstentions should have been counted as nay votes. "The agreement is in keeping with JNF's basic principles and guarantees its future and continued operations in the Negev and the Galilee for the years to come," JNF chairman Effi Stenzler said. Under the land swap arrangement, the JNF will receive undeveloped land in the North and South in exchange for properties in the country's Center. The approval of the agreement is a major boost for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's campaign promise to reform the Israel Lands Administration. Netanyahu himself visited the assembly in Jerusalem earlier in the day before taking off for a meeting with Premier Silvio Berlusconi in Rome. Members of the Kadima faction in the JNF said the outcome of the vote resulted from a mistake made by one of its delegates. Tzofia Diamant, a JNF assembly member and one of four members of the election committee, said she voted to abstain when she meant to vote against the motion. Diamant said she was also voting in proxy for 12 other assembly members and cast their ballots in the same way. She told The Jerusalem Post that a week with little sleep, pressure on her to vote quickly and unfamiliarity with the English-language version of the ballot caused her to mark the wrong boxes, a mistake she discovered upon helping to count the ballots. In the days leading up to the vote, there was major disagreement among the factions on whether or not to conduct a secret ballot. Some were worried that delegates would cave to factional pressures if the votes were public. The night before the vote, Avi Widerman, a Kadima operative who was in charge of Diaspora affairs under the Olmert administration, petitioned a district court judge to rule against the use of open ballots. The judge rejected the petition early Tuesday morning, stating that it was against the court's policy to intervene in the internal decisions of voluntary organizations, and the vote was held as planned. Diamant said that the fact that the ballots were signed actually worked in Kadima's favor as it was now possible to see how each person voted and correct her mistake. Diamant said her vote and those she voted in proxy were the only abstentions cast. "If they don't want to count my votes as nays, we are willing hold another vote," she said. A recount could reverse the decision and put the government's land reform agenda in danger. Its passing clears the way toward implementing the reform and is expected to enable the transfer of 290,000 housing units' ownership to their current tenants. Stenzler said another vote was out of the question. "The General Assembly authorized the agreement which the JNF signed with the government and which was ratified by JNF's board and the General Council of the World Zionist Organization," he said. "The agreement provides the JNF with a safety net. If the land reform is passed in the Knesset, the JNF receives 70,000 dunams in the Negev and the Galilee and will continue to act for the benefit of the Jewish people, Zionism and periphery development." Stenzler spoke at the conclusion of the JNF's Land Policy and Land Use Research Institute's annual Jerusalem conference yesterday. This year's conference focused on the proposed land reform agreement and featured a variety of experts on land policy. Among them were Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas), Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and several MKs. Meanwhile in the Knesset, the debate on the ILA reform heated up as the Economic Affairs Committee began a series of discussions on the plan. Opinions were for the most part split along party lines, with coalition legislators backing the reform, arguing for the urgent need to restructure the bureaucratic body, and opposition lawmakers attacking the plan and the government's pressure to pass it alongside the 2009/10 state budget. Opposition Mks expressed concern at the rushed nature of the debate, saying it was highly improper to hold such an important discussion under time constraints. The government, which had agreed to remove the land reform from the Economics arrangement Bill, decided that committee discussions must be completed by July 15, the deadline for approval of the state budget. Economic Affairs Committee Chairman Ophir Akunis (Likud), in an apparent slip of the tongue, referred to the separation of the reform from the bill as a "virtual split." Later he said the committee could take as long as it needed to discuss the reform and that he was willing to hold "marathon meetings" to make sure that all the issues were covered. The first hour of the committee meeting was dedicated to debating the injustice of the rushed time frame, and only afterwards did the MKs talk about the issues brought before it. The reform is set to dominate the committee's schedule for the next two weeks and because of that the Knesset has decided to form a special sub-committee to deal exclusively with the proposed reform.