Finance panel erupts into debate over Physicians for Human Rights’ tax break

Smotrich proposed similar legislation, which the Knesset approved in a preliminary reading last week, and will be combined with the government bill in committee.

February 16, 2016 22:58
3 minute read.
Finance Ministry

Finance Ministry chief economist Yoel Naveh (left) speaks to the Knesset Finance Committee in Jerusalem. (photo credit: KNESSET)

MKs on the Right tried a new tactic to fight NGOs they call anti-Israel on Tuesday, attempting to take away the tax-exempt status of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel.

They failed.

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The Knesset Finance Committee held a meeting to vote on the exemptions of 56 organizations from paying taxes on the donations they receive, a procedure that usually takes place with little discussion or debate. However, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) and Eli Cohen (Kulanu) said ahead of the vote that they would oppose benefits for “anti-Zionist” NGOs.

Smotrich pointed out that PHR had contributed information claiming Israel committed war crimes to the infamous Goldstone Report on Operation Protective Edge, which was widely condemned as biased and inaccurate. South African jurist Richard Goldstone, who headed the investigation, eventually retracted claims that Israel targeted civilians.

The Bayit Yehudi MK also said PHR had participated in Israel Apartheid Week in London and sponsored an exhibit of drawings depicting IDF soldiers aiming at Palestinian civilians.

“Israel gives benefits and tax exemptions to NGOs who contribute to building a better civil society. The absurd situation in which the State of Israel grants benefits to those who seek to harm it and undermine its sovereignty does not make sense,” Smotrich stated.

As a democracy, he said Israel cannot ban the organization or its activities, but does not have to help it raise money and give it tax breaks.

Cohen, meanwhile, said the MKs are not a “rubber stamp” that automatically approves requests for tax exemptions.

“Beyond considerations of good governance, we cannot give benefits to organizations that act against the country’s interests,” he added.

Opposition and coalition lawmakers shouted at each other at the start of the meeting, with MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) saying: “Just because someone opposes this government doesn’t mean they’re against the country. In a democracy, you are allowed to be against the government; it’s legitimate.

You just don’t understand what democracy means.”

Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) cut the meeting short because of the shouting matches, renewing it later in the afternoon, and calling for MKs to stick to the technical process of authorizing the NGO registrar’s decisions.

“If we go over every organization, there will be many that I, personally, cannot vote for and, therefore, I suggest that as long as there isn’t a legal problem with an organization, or no police investigation about any of them, we not take them off the list,” he said.

MKs Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) and Manuel Trajtenberg (Zionist Union) supported Gafni’s stance and spoke out against treating individual organizations differently than others.

The committee seemed to agree and voted to give all 56 organizations tax breaks.

Physicians for Human Rights said the meeting “opened a window to the Right’s persecution of human rights organizations and civil society. The vote to receive the benefit is a small victory for the organization in the battle against this campaign. There is an attempt to harm organizations’ funding, whether by stopping tax breaks or the NGO bill.”

Also Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his support for the NGO transparency bill, which passed a first reading last week.

The bill says that, in addition to an existing law requiring the reporting of foreign government funding, any nonprofit organization that receives most of its funding from a foreign political entity will have to label itself as such in any publication.

Smotrich proposed similar legislation, approved by the Knesset in a preliminary reading last week, which will be combined with the government bill in committee.

“The NGO bill is a bill dealing with transparency,” Netanyahu said at a press conference in Berlin. “It is not a bill dealing with censorship, it is about transparency.”

The prime minister said if a foreign government helps an organization, that fact should be known to the public.

“There are laws like this in other countries, including the US. No one law is identical to another, but the principle is the same. Therefore, all we want is transparency,” he stated.

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