Legal advisor: Knesset not authorized to investigate foreign-funded NGOs

To limit funding from foreign countries to organizations that express criticism of IDF soldiers, the Knesset should legislate.

October 18, 2017 19:02
2 minute read.

sraeli lawmakers attend a vote on a bill at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem February 6, 2017. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)

The Knesset does not have the authority to form a commission of inquiry to look into foreign government donations to NGOs, Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon wrote Wednesday.

“After examining the matter, I think that the topic cannot be a matter of parliamentary inquiry, and that those asking to limit the possibility of organizations to receive funding from foreign countries for activities that include expressing criticism of IDF soldiers should do so through passing laws,” Yinon wrote.

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Such laws, Yinon pointed out, would also be subjected to examination from a constitutional standpoint, as to whether they violate basic rights – but it would still be within the Knesset’s authority to try to pass them.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister’s Office said the coalition will push for the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into “the involvement of foreign governments in the funding of political organizations and activities to harm IDF soldiers,” as well as legislation to curb the phenomenon. Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud), who suggested the commission of inquiry, said it would call greater attention to the issue, and embarrass centrist parties such as Yesh Atid, whose leader Yair Lapid has spoken sharply against NGOs he described as harming IDF soldiers, but who would hesitate to cooperate with the coalition.

Last year the Justice Ministry compiled a list of 27 NGOs that receive most of their funding from foreign state entities; 25 could be considered left-wing. Some of the more prominent organizations are Breaking the Silence, which collects testimony from IDF veterans claiming war crimes, and B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

Yinon sent Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein his legal opinion, pointing out that a similar proposal arose in 2011, which was eventually voted down.

The legal adviser wrote that, at the time, “we reached the conclusion that despite the broad wording of the articles [of the law regarding commissions of inquiry], we cannot accept an interpretation claiming that there is no limit to the topics of investigation and authority of the committee.”

The reasons Yinon gave for rejecting foreign funding of NGOs critical of the IDF as a topic of parliamentary inquiry were: Investigating civil society organizations for ideological reasons “violates basic governmental principles;” parliamentary commissions of inquiry are not the place for ideological clarifications; they are meant to oversee the government, not civil society; and there are already laws requiring transparency from organizations receiving foreign government funding.

NGO Monitor, the leading think tank studying foreign funding of organizations active in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, also came out against the coalition’s approach to what it called “massive funding for radical NGOs.”

“Foreign government funding for Israeli NGOs is a serious issue, but legislation is unlikely to help,” NGO Monitor president Prof. Gerald Steinberg said. “Israel is attacked because partisan approaches are seen as limiting democratic debate, while past efforts have not made any difference.”

Steinberg called on lawmakers to directly engage with their European counterparts to “produce agreed guidelines applied also to the funding for the many NGOs leading the demonization and operating outside Israeli jurisdiction.

“This is a serious issue for the entire country that needs a response going beyond another Right-Left conflict,” he said.

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