As NGO bill nears approval, Europe warns Israel against curtailing free speech

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN, JPOST.COM STAFF,
December 27, 2015 21:35

The bill will be brought to its first reading Wednesday in the Knesset, where it is expected to pass with the support of coalition parties and Yisrael Beytenu.

4 minute read.



eu flag (european union)

European Union flags. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s bill requiring transparency for foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations overcame a key hurdle on Sunday when it passed in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.

The legislation will be brought to its first reading in the Knesset on Wednesday, where it is expected to pass with the support of coalition parties and Yisrael Beytenu.

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It will then go to committee, where MKs hope to amend the bill.

Army Radio reported on Sunday that the EU furiously protested the proposed legislation.

According to the report, based on what Army Radio said was a leaked internal EU document, EU Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen met with Shaked several weeks ago. He called upon Israel to refrain from taking actions that will “make more complicated” the space in which Israeli NGOs operate, claiming that this would impinge on freedom of expression and association.

According to the report, the ambassador said that while the request for transparency was legitimate, the draft law is aimed at organizations critical of the government. “This will have a negative impact on Israel’s image and on Europe’s relating to it as an open and democratic society,” he was quoted as saying.

Faaborg-Andersen also reportedly said that placing restraints on civil society is something “we see mostly in tyrannical regimes.

We call on Israel to remain in the family of democratic states and not to join this worrying trend.”

The report detailed that Faaborg-Andersen said that Europe sees the bill as part of a “worrying trend” of “shaming” particular organizations, particularly those dealing with human rights, something that may contribute in the public discourse to “a decline in appreciation of human rights as a universal value.”

The EU delegation in Tel Aviv would not respond to the report, saying that it does not discuss documents leaked to the press.

It also had no comment on the proposed legislation.

Following the vote in the ministerial committee, Shaked asked why it was legitimate for the EU to label products from settlements and not for Israel to label the products of their funding.

“The EU ambassador said it would harm democracy, but it is the involvement of foreign countries that truly endangers Israeli democracy,” Shaked said. “We ask the countries who want to be involved in Israel’s internal matters to do it openly using acceptable diplomatic means.”

The measure is the latest of several versions of legislation targeting donations that organizations receive from foreign governments or entities funded by foreign governments.

Past versions, which did not pass, tried to tax the donations, whereas Shaked’s bill would only label the NGOs, and only apply to those that receive more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments.

An NGO that is mostly funded by foreign governments would have to say so in its publications and reports that are publicly available, in any contact in writing or at meetings with public officials or employees, and will have to detail which foreign entities donated to them in the relevant years. In addition, the NGOs’ representatives will have to wear name tags with the name of their organization on it when they’re in the Knesset, as lobbyists do.

Any violation of the law would carry a fine of NIS 29,200.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said the ministers’ decision was a “bullet between the eyes of Israel’s image in the world.” He said it was a black day for freedom of thought in Israel and that Israel’s enemies can thank the government for placing it together with some of the world’s darkest regimes.

Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich responded by introducing a bill that would prohibit politicians from raising most of their money abroad. She noted that Israel’s top senior right-wing politicians do the overwhelming majority of their fund-raising abroad, singling out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

“The NGO bill that passed today is frighteningly hypocritical because its main supporters enjoy huge contributions from foreigners who fund their primaries,” Yacimovich said.

“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. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at the public,” she added.

Kulanu MK Michael Oren warned that the bill was problematic because it would not result in less funding for anti-Israel activity of NGOs. He vowed to make changes in the bill when it comes to the Knesset Law Committee.

Meanwhile, on the Right, the government decision was met with approval.

“Israel is the only country in the Middle East which respects human rights and civil rights and which has succeeded in running a free, strong society despite the terrorist attacks and existential threats with which it is faced since its establishment,” said the head of the Im Tirtzu NGO, Matan Peleg.

“Nonetheless, the fact that foreign governments, Palestinian foundations, and the European Union have decided to activate agents of change and organizations which act like moles in our midst in an effort to alter the country from within is chutzpah of the first order and certainly an undemocratic step.”

Bayit Yehudi faction head Shuli Moalem-Refaeli responded to the criticism from the Left by saying that the bill is an expression of democracy in Israel.

“The people of Israel are sovereign in their land and not the Swedes or the Finns,” she said.


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