To avoid having to lease its land to Israeli Arabs in violation of its covenant, the Jewish National Fund has agreed to sever ties with the government and swap half its land in developed areas with barren government land in the Galilee and the Negev, The Jewish Week has learned.
As a private organization, JNF would be free to continue its Jews-only land policy as it seeks to settle 250,000 Jews in the Negev in the next five to 10 years and 100,000 Jews in existing Jewish communities in the Galilee, according to fund officials.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel immediately issued a statement saying there should be no discrimination "in marketing public lands, and that they, including those owned or managed by the JNF, should be distributed equally to both Jews and Arabs."
ACRI spokesman Yoav Loeff said the organization‘s attorneys are studying the agreement but questioned how JNF could claim that its holdings would now be private.
"It‘s not a clear situation," Loeff insisted. "Some of the land of the JNF was bought by Jews for the Jewish nation, but other land was given to it by the state. I don‘t know what was given or swapped because everything is mixed." He added later, "It‘s not possible to say it is now separate [from the government] and that it could do whatever it wants."
Larry Garber, executive director of the New Israel Fund, which helps to fund ACRI, was equally critical.
"In a democratic state one needs to avoid at all possible costs discrimination among citizens, whether it involves state actors or private actors, particularly where there are sensitivities," he said. "Where the JNF has acted as a quasi-state actor for so long and where land issues are so sensitive, we would be particularly concerned about a decision that would in effect preclude the Arab citizens of Israel from purchasing or leasing land."
Asked about those who say the JNF policy discriminates against non-Jews, JNF Executive Director Russell Robinson replied: "If you want to buy land in the Vatican, you have to be Catholic. … In Israel, 5 percent of the land is owned by the Muslim Waqf, and they have a policy of not leasing or selling land to other than Muslims."
"To have discrimination you have to show harm," he continued. "JNF never sells land, and [it] leases land only to the Jewish people. Never in the history of Israel has anyone been harmed because of that covenant."
Although the Israeli government and JNF leaders met ast week to discuss the agreement, which was recommended by a committee established to consider reforms in the administration of state land, Robinson said the deal would take some time to be completed.
He explained, for instance, that it was still undecided which land and parcels would be included in the land swap.Although the exact acreage involved in the swap has not been decided, Robinson said JNF owns 13 percent of the land of Israel on which half of the population lives.
The land to be swapped, which is located along the Mediterranean coast and in developed urban areas, is more valuable than the land JNF will be receiving, so the Israel Lands Authority will pay JNF the difference in value: about $220 million.
An appraisal of the land is now under way, but Robinson said the ILA would soon begin paying JNF about $110 million over five years pending completion of the appraisal. He said that if the two groups cannot agree on the appraised value, Israel‘s attorney general would decide.
It was Israel‘s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, who triggered the shakeup by declaring earlier this year that JNF could not bar Israeli Arabs from applying for building plots on its land. His comments came in response to petitions to Israel‘s High Court of Justice from four human rights groups, including ACRI, objecting to JNF‘s Jews-only land policy.
Robinson said the swap would allow JNF to "get back to our roots" and again embark on developing the land of Israel. He noted that the Negev comprises 60 percent of Israel and that JNF could now develop the land without the red tape it would face if the government still owned it.
"This will allow us to be far more creative and dynamic," he said. "We now get to take land that nobody wanted and turn it into the soil of the Jewish people. … We hope this will become an opportunity to strengthen our drive in the Negev."
Robinson said JNF broke ground on its Negev development project on Oct. 12 and that 3,000 people: 1,200 families: already have moved into seven new communities in the Negev. One of them, Carmit, is for new immigrants from North America.
"We’re trying to make commuter communities around Beersheba, Eilat and Mitzpe Ramon," he said. "The Negev should be an economic strength for Israel and not an economic drain."
Robinson noted that before Palestinian violence erupted in September 2000, JNF received more than $200 million a year in lease payments. But since the violence, he said, land sales and development have dropped and JNF received only about $75 million last year.
A JNF spokesperson said the land deal would reduce JNF‘s voting power on the board of the Israel Lands Authority but that JNF would still retain some seats. Loeff said that fact alone appears to demonstrate that JNF is not a totally private organization but rather is "connected" in some way with the ILA. He added that even if the JNF became completely private, "there would still be a problem."
"If I have a shop or a club and only Jews can enter, it still discriminates even if it is completely private," he said, comparing it to stores that refused to sell to Jews and blacks.
Loeff added that his group‘s petition before the Israel High Court of Justice challenging JNF‘s Jews-only land policy was still pending and that these latest developments may cause his organization to amend it.