Before the government campaigns against itself

One well-known beneficiary of taxpayers’ money in the settlements is the Yesha Council.

Yesha Council leader Avi Ro'eh 370 (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Yesha Council leader Avi Ro'eh 370
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Of the 5,469,041 Israelis who had the right to vote in last month’s local elections, a majority was focused on improving transportation, education and housing.
However, only five percent of the voters – those who live in West Bank settlements – would have their newly elected representatives use their resources to stage national campaigns against the government.
Such funding has been done for years by municipalities, regional and local councils of settlements east of the Green Line. No mayor who is elected by anyone of the 95 percent of the citizens in 1967 Israel (i.e. not in settlements) would use taxpayers’ money to campaign on national issues. It is time to expose this illegitimate course of action, in the hope that our moderate representatives in the Knesset will put an end to it.
One well-known beneficiary of taxpayers’ money in the settlements is the Yesha Council. It is an NGO that many Israelis know for staging huge media campaigns. The common denominator of these PR and advertising efforts is to undermine any past or future agreement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Even when such an agreement reflects the stated goal of the governing coalition.
Founded shortly after the 1967 war, the Yesha Council advocates on behalf of the Israeli settler communities in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), a mission that includes supporting their ideological-political struggle against peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the expansion of the settlement enterprise and annexation of the entire occupied territories to Israel.
As an extra-parliamentary organization, the Yesha Council’s mission may be extremist, but is not illegitimate. However, the fact that its work is funded primarily by transfers from the settlements’ municipal budgets is highly questionable given its lobbying and advocacy activities. The Yesha Council has placed numerous newspaper ads against rulings of the Supreme Court to evacuate illegal outposts built on private Palestinian land. They employ a full-time coordinator to lobby the Knesset.
They stage demonstrations and propaganda tours for journalists. These efforts are obviously in opposition to the vision that is repeatedly stated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of two states for two peoples. They are inconsistent with the purpose of municipal taxes or state money provided to local authorities. And they cost taxpayers a great deal of money.
In 2004 more than NIS 12 million (about $3.5m.) were given to the Yesha Council from budgets of local authorities of West Bank settlements. This transfer was meant for campaigning against the government’s “Disengagement Plan” to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. As a result, the interior minister summoned the local authorities for a hearing on the matter, but this did not stop the municipalities from continuing to fund the Yesha Council.
In the past six years, NIS 45m. (about $13m.) were transferred from settlements’ municipal budgets to Yesha. In 2012, Yesha’s budget for advertising and advocacy, not including wages, overhead costs and training, was some NIS 3.6m. Add to that the advertising and political advocacy budgets directly spent by the 24 municipalities, regional and local councils of West Bank settlements, and the magnitude of the problem becomes even more alarming. To give but one example, the regional council of Binyamin spent about NIS 1.4m. on advocacy and advertising, not including salaries.
While peace NGOs are often accused of being funded by small donations of foreign governments, the most radical and antagonistic NGO of all, the Yesha Council, is subversively funded by Israeli taxpayers. No regional council or municipality that lies west of the Green Line would be able to spend millions of shekels on public relations, for peace, the two-state solution, or any other matter. Nor could a local council in the pre- 1967 borders transfer funds to pro-peace NGOs such as Peace Now, even though its advertising and advocacy budget is less than a tenth of the Yesha Council’s.
Sadly, this amounts to a bias against peace in the Israeli system. When then-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert funded a demonstration against the Oslo Accords in 1994, peace activists Mossi Raz and Anat Hoffman threatened to appeal to the Supreme Court against this misuse of public funds, but compromised with the municipality before the case got to court.
A year later, when the government was negotiating the evacuation of the Golan Heights settlements in favor of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, an ad-hoc committee of local residents was set up to campaign against the government’s actions, again supported by public money. This time, Peace Now appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled, bizarrely, two to one in favor of local authorities funding political campaigns, provided they are used to protect the interests of their own residents. This is quite a peculiar ruling: residents of cities west of the Green Line surely suffer from terror as well as economic hardship resulting from the conflict, yet it is inconceivable that the moderate and left-wing mayors from Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Beersheva would spend a single shekel on newspaper ads by a peace NGO campaigning for a two-state solution.
The common Hebrew term “mamlachti” means being respectful to the rules of the system. While every Israeli is affected by the conflict and the majority supports a territorial compromise for peace, the elected representatives of this majority behave in a “mamlachti” fashion, granting the settler leadership disproportionate budgets and representation in the media and the corridors of the government.
In July 2000 a bill was presented in the Knesset by then-MK Mossi Raz, which would have led to the de-funding of the Yesha Council. The bill called for prohibiting local authorities from funding controversial political campaigns through the taxes these authorities collect from their residents, as well as from the state budgets they receive. The bill applied to local authorities in both settlementsas well as west of the Green Line (although, as stated above, no local authority in 1967 Israel funds such controversial campaigns). The bill failed in the Knesset. The moderates in the current coalition – whether from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua – can and ought to raise this bill again.
Ironically, if the government made progress in the current talks, it might find itself facing a highly visible media campaign opposing an agreement that it is funded by the government itself. The unavoidable conclusion is therefore to end taxpayer support for the Yesha Council now.The author has been the executive director of OneVoice Israel, a movement promoting the two-state solution, and is currently working for its DC office.