JNF body to vote on Tuesday on key land-swap deal

Prime minister may speak to members before they make their decision.

Efi Stenzler 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Efi Stenzler 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The JNF Assembly is set to vote on Tuesday morning on a land-swap deal between the organization and the government meant to facilitate the land reform efforts of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is considering addressing the assembly at Jerusalem's King Solomon Hotel before the vote. The Prime Minister's Office said it would be a closed meeting. The land-swap deal was negotiated over the last few years between the JNF leadership and government officials, and would see some 70,000 dunams (about 17,000 acres) of built-up land in the country's center traded for a similar amount of undeveloped land in the Negev and Galilee. The swap would give the government ownership of some of Israel's most valuable and developed real estate in order to include this area in a major reform of land-ownership being pushed by Netanyahu. Currently, most of the land in the country is owned by the governmental Israel Lands Administration, which rents it to individuals and corporations in long-term leases that function for all intents and purposes as "sales." However, the constant need to refer to the ILA for even the smallest of structural changes adds layers of bureaucracy and complexity in Israeli real-estate transactions. In an effort to streamline land transactions and use, the government is proposing a reform that would disband the ILA and transfer ownership of the properties from the state to the private individuals and corporations currently leasing them. A new authority would be formed to regulate the new, privatized land-ownership system. Without the land-swap with the JNF, the reform would be partial and more difficult to implement. For this reason, the government had hoped the JNF Assembly would approve the swap agreement at an earlier gathering, last Thursday, clearing an obstacle to the reform early on. The JNF leadership, too, wanted the deal to pass, but critics within the assembly resisted this and instead a secret ballot was scheduled. In the end, though, the Tuesday vote will be via a convoluted procedure in which members will write their names, and those of other, absent members on whose behalf they are authorized to vote, on their ballot slips. The land-swap would only take place if the larger land reform passes in the government. Thus, the JNF leadership believes, the land-swap deal does not support the reform, but minimizes the damage to the JNF if the reform passes in the government. Indeed, JNF chairman Effi Stentzler emphatically told The Jerusalem Post last week that the organization did not support the reform. A fully secret ballot might have been a boon to the opposition to the government's reform plan because it would have enabled many JNF Assembly members who are dependent on coalition parties to vote without fear of paying a political price. Many are said to be skeptical over the reform because they fear it will enable indirect ownership of Israeli land by unfriendly countries or huge corporate conglomerates. Others, meanwhile, complain that the land-swap deal itself is problematic. Adi Arbel, a researcher at the Jerusalem-based Institute for Zionist Strategies, has offered a detailed list of "necessary adjustments to the agreement" that amount to a laundry list of what critics view as dangerous lacunae. For example, the agreement fails to stipulate what lands will be given to the JNF in the 70,000-dunam swap. The agreement currently calls for trading lands "of the same dimensions," but does not require them to be of a certain value. What prevents the government from offering useless lands in return, such as nature preserves or military firing ranges, wonders Arbel? But according to Alex Heifetz, the manager of the JNF's Land Division and a member of the negotiating team that hammered out the land-swap with government negotiators, the JNF has negotiated a specific "dunam bank" of 120,000 dunams that the government can offer to the JNF. "It's true that the government at first offered us the Sea of Galilee in return, but that was before negotiations began and they understood that the JNF had interests and we would all have to cooperate to achieve them," said Heifetz. The lands in the "dunam bank" have all been checked over the past three years to confirm that they are not firing ranges, natural parks or cliffs, and do not have contested ownership or squatters of any kind, he said. Critics also worry about the makeup of the board of directors, or "council," of the new land authority. The land-swap agreement gives the JNF half-minus-one representation (five out of 12), but, says Arbel, it does not stipulate what would happen if the board itself were expanded, for example by including representatives of government ministries dealing with environmental or minority issues. According to Heifetz, the government's representatives are specifically listed, so any change, particularly the addition of "public directors" representing minority sectors or regions, would require the JNF's agreement. Meanwhile, he noted, the JNF has won an "unprecedented victory" in the form of JNF appointees in the management of the new authority and in the transactions committees that approve large real-estate transactions in the country. "We will see documents and meeting minutes about government management of JNF land in real time, not one week before the meeting of the JNF Assembly. Before this agreement, the JNF did not have the legal tools to oversee the management of its lands. Now it will," he said. Third, critics are concerned with the agreement's Clause 6, which allows some of the 70,000 dunams to be given to the Himnuta Corporation rather than the JNF. The wholly-owned subsidiary of the JNF enjoys one advantage which the JNF does not: It can legally sell its land. "We fear that lands that are to be permanently reserved for the Jewish people [through JNF ownership] are liable to be sold because they went under the stewardship of Himnuta," says Arbel, who called on the Himnuta Company to be removed from the agreement altogether. According to Heifetz, however, the use of Himnuta does not endanger the properties under its control, but rather allows the JNF to build on them without needing approval of the new land authority that would manage JNF lands. "In some places where the JNF will invest in development, [business] parks or commercial initiatives, it is important to guarantee [JNF's] direct management of the site," said Heifetz. And Himnuta, which "is 100% owned by JNF and has the same board of directors," can be trusted to do so.