In the opening shot of a battle Jerusalem has decided to wage with NGOs it deems biased against Israel, the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday slammed a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) fundraising delegation to Saudi Arabia as evidence the organization has lost its "moral compass."
"A human rights organization raising money in Saudi Arabia is like a women's rights group asking the Taliban for a donation," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said Monday.
"If you can fundraise in Saudi Arabia, why not move on to Somalia, Libya and North Korea?" he said. "For an organization that claims to offer moral direction, it appears that Human Rights Watch has seriously lost its moral compass."
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division, responded by telling The Jerusalem Post that there was a need to distinguish between a government and its people, and to conflate the two was "misguided at best."
"Certainly not everyone is tainted by the misconduct of their government," she said, stressing that her organization did not take money from any governments around the world, but did solicit funds from individuals and foundations worldwide.
"There are private individuals in Saudi Arabia who are not part of the ruling government," she said.
Regev's comments came two weeks after Israel was ripped for alleged misconduct during Operation Cast Lead in reports issued by HRW and Amnesty International, two of the highest-profile human rights NGOs. Israel has decided to take a much more aggressive stance toward future reports issued by these organizations, the Post has learned.
"We will make a greater effort in the future to go through their reports with a fine-tooth comb, expose the inconsistencies and their problematic use of questionable data," one senior official said.
"We discovered during the Gaza operation and the Second Lebanon War that these organizations come in with a very strong agenda, and because they claim to have some kind of halo around them, they receive a status that they don't deserve," he said.
The Foreign Ministry is currently considering how best to expand its focus and deal more systematically with this issue, and it is assumed this will be done together with the Prime Minister's Office, the Post has learned.
At a press conference last week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Foreign Ministry was currently involved in a reform that would place a much greater emphasis on dealing with NGOs, which Lieberman said were replacing diplomats as the engine for setting the international community's agenda.
Regev's comments on HRW were triggered by an op-ed that appeared Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal's online edition, reporting that a delegation from the organization recently visited Saudi Arabia to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting the group's activities against Israel.
This op-ed, written by David Bernstein - a law professor at Virginia's George Mason University - was based on a report issued by NGO Monitor two months ago, which itself was based on an article on the visit that appeared in the Saudi English-language newspaper Arab News.
According to the Arab News story from May, a delegation of senior members of HRW were in Saudi Arabia and commended at a dinner attended by prominent members of Saudi society, human rights activists and dignitaries for work on Gaza and the Middle East as a whole.
According to the report, HRW presented a documentary and spoke on the report they had compiled "on Israel violating human rights and international law" during the Gaza operation.
"Human Rights Watch provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets. Pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations have strongly resisted the report and tried to discredit it," Whitson was quoted in the paper as saying.
Whitson, according to the Arab News report, pointed out that the group had managed to testify about Israeli abuses to the US Congress on three occasions.
"US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel and the Hamas authorities in Gaza to cooperate with the United Nations fact-finding mission to investigate the allegations of serious Israeli violations during the war on Gaza," she was quoted as saying.
Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which monitors humanitarian NGOs working in or compiling reports about Israel, called Saudi Arabia one of the world's greatest human rights violators and said that for a human rights organization to go there looking for funds was "grossly immoral."
Steinberg said that HRW had turned to the Arab world for funds since some of its major Jewish donors had stopped contributing to the organization because of its stance on Israel.
He added that it was disingenuous for Whitson to say the organization was soliciting individuals in Saudi Arabia, not the government, since the wealth that the organization was soliciting in Saudi Arabia "can only be part of the Saudi elite," and the elite were an integral part of a regime and system notorious for human rights violations.
Whitson slammed both NGO Monitor and Bernstein for not calling her to check their facts, and said that if they had done so they would have been informed that - contrary to the impressions left by their reports - HRW did discuss Saudi human rights violations during the delegation's visit.
She dismissed NGO Monitor as a "propaganda organization."
Steinberg said that e-mail queries his organization had left with Whitson and HRW executive-director Kenneth Roth on the matter had gone unanswered.
Whitson dismissed the impression left in the Arab News report that the organization's sales pitch in Saudi Arabia had been based on its work slamming Israel, saying there was Saudi press censorship, and it was clear that HRW's work in Gaza was the angle that the authorities in Riyadh would want to highlight.
Whitson said that while in Saudi Arabia, HRW had met with the government's human rights commission and had private dinners, "just as we have private dinners in Tel Aviv, London and New Delhi."
She said the group had Saudi donors, but - citing her organization's policy - would not identify them or say how much money had been raised on the recent visit to the Saudi kingdom.