(Reuters) — Israeli lawmakers are pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lift what they call unjustified secrecy over opaque - and rising - funding for settlements on West Bank land Palestinians want for a state.
Unpublished official data reviewed by Reuters suggests state spending on settlers rose by a third after Netanyahu took office in 2009 and critics complain that the cost of settlements has long remained hidden in thickets of budgetary convolution.
Condemned by U.S. and European allies as illegal obstacles to peace with the Palestinians, settlements face a new wave of hostility within Israel - from taxpayers who suspect the state of handing on their money by the back door to a vocal minority.
“I’m a member of the finance committee and I’m telling you, I’m being conned,” said Elazar Stern, who sits in parliament for chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni’s liberal Hatnuah party.
“Funds are hidden. Clauses are lumped together so that you vote on an item that is justified and then they slip it in.”
Netanyahu dropped his objection to a Palestinian state after becoming prime minister in 2009 but has defended an expansion of Israeli building in the West Bank and rejects the Palestinian view that it shows he is not serious about a two-state solution.
While the rise in funding underlines Netanyahu’s commitment to keeping some occupied land in any deal with the Palestinians, their cost has become a target of middle-class discontent on the economy that drove street protests in 2011 and last year sent new lawmakers to parliament to challenge the right-wing premier.
The drive for transparency, which has support from some of those newly elected critics whom Netanyahu has had to bring into coalition, saw the Supreme Court last week order the Finance Ministry to offer changes in rules for oversight of the budget.
The pro-settler chair of the parliamentary finance committee defended the existing process. But a senior government official told Reuters there was some obfuscation - not to misuse tax revenues but to frustrate foreign critics of the settlements:
“We are discreet about the figures,” he conceded, “Since there are those who exaggerate and use them against Israel.”
There is little prospect of any government giving up major settlement blocs; many who grumble at the cost, or see hardline settlers as dangerous religious zealots, still support the idea of Israelis living in the big, suburban settlements that act as buffers between Jerusalem and the Arab cities of the West Bank.
So the dispute may not change the familiar calculus that saw U.S.-brokered talks with the Palestinians break down again in April amid recriminations over the expansion of big settlements.
But the row over money has highlighted divisions in Israeli public opinion on the issue and has put settler leaders on the defensive, fearing that especially some more controversial and remote hilltop outposts could be choked of funds.