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Does Israel’s NGO Bill Safeguard Transparency or Attack Freedom of Speech?

Israel debates a controversial bill

[Jerusalem] – A bill passed by Israel’s cabinet last Sunday has left-wing organizations in lather and even provoked the ambassador of the European Union (EU), Lars Faaborg-Andersen, to harsh criticism.

If approved by parliament, he said, the bill, that would require NGOs receiving more than half their funding from foreign governments to declare so, would “have a negative impact on Israel’s image and on Europe’s relating to it as an open and democratic society.”

According to a leaked EU report made public on Israeli radio, Faaborg-Andersen told Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in a private meeting that the proposed law resembles something “we see mostly in tyrannical regimes” Faaborg-Andersen reportedly said.

“We call on Israel to remain in the family of democratic states and not to join this worrying trend,” Faaborg-Andersen was quoted saying.

The EU embassy in Tel Aviv did not respond to queries about the leaked report.

Shaked’s draft law responds to a uniquely Israeli predicament, wherein left-leaning NGOs are commonly funded by foreign governments whereas their right-leaning counterparts receive most of their funding form foreign individuals.

All previous versions of this bill have failed to pass the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and Shaked’s bill approved by ministers on Sunday, would have to pass three committees and a Knesset vote before becoming law, whereupon it would likely to face the scrutiny of the courts.

Governments around the world are increasingly enacting legislation imposing constraints and strict oversight on NGOs. Governments such as Russia, Hungary and Egypt face criticism because of laws hampering the freedom of operation of non-profit organizations.

In what may be the most onerous iteration of this trend, a law passed by President Vladimir Putin decreed that that all NGOs operating in Russia and receiving foreign funding are “foreign agents.”

“Everybody understands [the bill was proposed] specifically to harm the liberal NGOs in Israel, those who foster and strengthen democracy,” Yitzhak Reiter told The Media Line. Reiter, a professor of Middle East, Israel and Islamic Studies at the Jerusalem Institute, says the bill represents an attempt by the right-wing in Israel – the side which has held government for over a decade – to further weaken the left.

Countering Shaked’s bill, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich has introduced a bill that would prohibit politicians from raising most of their money abroad.

She emphasized that Israel’s most senior right-wing leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose number one political donor is US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, receive the bulk of their funding from foreign sources.

“The NGO bill that passed today is frighteningly hypocritical because its main supporters enjoy huge contributions from foreigners who fund their primaries,” she said, adding, “today, after the obsessive pursuit of NGOs, the time has come for the politicians to explain how they dare raise so much money abroad while pursuing the NGOs for doing the same thing.”

The measure is designed to “shame” NGOs, Yitzhak Reiter argued, adding that, it is unlikely to curb those most critical of the government.

Aaron Kalman, foreign media spokesman for NGO Monitor, told The Media Line that such moves are merely an attempt by the government to increase transparency in the NGO sector. “In the past NGO Monitor has documented NGOs receiving foreign funding that have been involved, directly and indirectly, in all sorts of campaigns that have harmed Israel,” he explained.

Anger at criticism emanating from foreign-government funded NGOs is no reason for the government to treat them as hostile entities, says Itay Greenspan, a lecturer at the Paul Baerwald school of Social Work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It is very harmful to civil society. Irrespective of my position on the conflict, we need watchdogs, critical NGOs who monitor the [government’s] activities” Greenspan told The Media Line.

Greenspan argued that the fact that an organization receives funding from foreign governments is not reason enough to label it. It is a “common practice,” he said, adding that by targeting left-wing organizations while ignores right-leaning politicians and groups, Shaked’s bill leaves the impression it seeks to stifle criticism.

Kalman, of NGO Watch, said that anyone drawing comparisons between Israel’s NGO bill and the actions of authoritarian governments is usually funding the NGO sector or benefiting from it. The EU, not exactly a foreign government, does in fact fund several NGOs unfriendly to the Netanyahu government.

“The United States has a transparency act regarding NGO funding from foreign governments – no one puts the United States on that list of countries with authoritarian (regimes),” Kalman said.