The Knesset on Tuesday will host a conference which will bring it into disgrace. Instead of upholding the traditions of democracy and free speech, it will be responsible for an attempt to trample on the principles of freedom of expression by those who hold divergent views to those of the government. Most surprising of all is the fact that the event is to be hosted and chaired by Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, a parliamentarian who has become known for his staunch defense of democratic values - most recently leading the counterassault on the attempt to have all citizens registered with biometric identity cards.
The conference has been put together by two right-wing organizations - NGO Monitor headed by Prof. Gerald Steinberg at Bar-Ilan University, and the Institute of Zionist Strategies headed by West Bank settlement leader Yisrael Harel. The invitation to the event shows that, with the single exception of MK Daniel Ben-Simon, only right-wing MKs will be attending, while the list of invited NGOs is no more than fiction. Adding their names to the list of unconfirmed attendees was no more than a publicity stunt aimed at making the event appear to be more balanced than it really is. They will be absent and never had any intention of participating in this latest round of NGO bashing. And even Ben-Simon cancelled his participation at the last moment after finding out about the true nature of the meeting.
Reading its publications, it is very clear that NGO Monitor has, for a number of years, had a dual objective. Its reports deal almost entirely with a critique of peace-related NGOs and especially those which focus on human rights, as though there were no other NGOs to examine. The second is to point the blame for the funding of these NGOs at the door of the European Union in what has become a very blatant anti-Europe policy.
In an unprecedented move, NGO Monitor requested detailed information from the EU on 105 projects which were funded under the auspices of either the Partnership for Peace (PFP) or the European Instrument for Development and Human Rights (EIDHR) programs as though they were carrying out a police investigation for fraud. And despite the fact that the EU provided copious material in response, over and beyond what it normally releases, NGO Monitor has not allowed the facts to get in the way of its preconceived conclusions.
NGO Monitor itself does not practice the same degree of transparency that it demands from others. It constantly refuses to disclose its own funding sources, over and beyond the minimal amounts which are registered with the official register of nonprofit organizations and which account for but a small percentage of its actual income.
And despite many requests for NGO Monitor to investigate, on an equal basis, the activities and funding of right-wing NGOs, many of which support illegal activities in the West Bank, it has consistently refused to do so. Many of these NGOs are North American-based and fund activities in settlements which are deemed illegal by both international and US law, while others support hesder yeshivot whose leaders, just a week or so ago, supported the illegal call for soldiers to refuse orders aimed at future settlement evacuation. It would appear that what is sauce for the goose is certainly not sauce for the gander as far as NGO Monitor is concerned.
THE EU funds human rights projects throughout the world, including in its own member countries, as well as Russia and China. It is indeed a sad day for Israeli democracy when Israel joins the elite group of states - Syria and Algeria - which make constant complaints to the EU over its funding of human rights activities within their countries. This is the family of Middle Eastern democracies to which we now join forces as the Knesset attempts to legislate against legitimate human rights activity.
Instead of being proud that under intense conditions of conflict, the best of Jewish tradition and humanistic values enables it to set up organizations which are concerned with the human rights even of its enemies, is to be commended, not attacked. Organizations such as B'Tselem, Adalah, Bimkom and Ir Amim, to name but a few of those attacked in the NGO Monitor report, are a credit to Israel and its values of democracy and are one of the few beacons of light that Israel is able to show to an increasingly sceptical international community.
It is indeed possible that today's attempt to push legislation through the Knesset aimed at preventing further funding of such organizations has little to do with values but a lot to do with realpolitik. There has been anger among many politicians during the past year because of Europe's decision to freeze the upgrade of the already highly developed relations between the EU and Israel. Notwithstanding, Israel continues to be the second largest recipient of R&D from the EU, partly through the Seventh Framework, well beyond the proportional amount which Israel pays into the common fund.
So it would appear that the EU is a good cow to milk as long as it doesn't make any political statement. This is the sort of attitude which Israel used to display to its Jewish supporters in the Diaspora - sign the check and shut up. Only give to what we tell you to give but don't exercise your own independent judgement what to do with your philanthropic endeavors.
NGO Monitor's activities have become so blatantly political that it is indeed hard to understand how such a reputable politician as Michael Eitan could have agreed to host today's conference. It is a black day for Israeli democracy and will only bring even greater international disrepute and criticism to the country which packages itself as the "only" democracy in the Middle East. NGO Monitor will no longer be able to point all the blame for Israel's bad press at the door of the Durban convention - it will have to look in the mirror for the real harbinger of bad news.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.
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