UN’s Ban calls NGO law ‘deeply troubling’

Netanyahu says law curbs "absurd" foreign intervention; NGOs lament harm to democracy.

European Union flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
European Union flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Tuesday he was deeply concerned by Israel’s passage of the NGO Transparency Law.
The law, which passed overnight Monday after more than six hours of debate and years of deliberation over different versions of the proposal, states that any non-profit organization that receives more than half of its funding from a foreign political entity must indicate as much in any publication or correspondence with elected officials or civil servants. The fine for violating the law would be up to NIS 29,000.
Ban said he is “deeply troubled by shrinking space for civil society in the region and around the world. I am concerned by Israel’s passage of the so-called ‘NGO Transparency Law,’ which contributes to a climate in which the activities of human rights organizations are increasingly delegitimized.”
A list of the NGOs falling under the bill’s purview, as well as the countries from which they received donations, would have to be posted on the Non-Profit Registrar’s website. NGOs already must report all contributions from foreign governments to the registrar.
The bill is controversial because 25 of the 27 organizations to which the Justice Ministry said it would apply are left-wing. Much of their foreign funding comes from European governments.
The European Commission’s spokesperson said Tuesday the law subverts Israel and the European Union’s shared democratic values.
According to the European Commission statement, “The reporting requirements imposed by the new law go beyond the legitimate need for transparency and seem aimed at constraining the activities of these civil society organizations working in Israel.
“Israel enjoys a vibrant democracy, freedom of speech and a diverse civil society, which are an integral part of the values which Israel and the EU both hold dear. This new legislation risks undermining these values,” the statement reads.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, hailed the new law, saying it creates a more informed public discourse that will strengthen Israeli democracy.
“The purpose of the law is to prevent the absurd situation in which foreign countries intervene in Israel’s internal affairs by funding organizations without the Israeli public even being aware of it. Unlike the Left’s claims, the law will increase transparency,” Netanyahu said after the bill passed.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who initiated a version of the bill, said she expects other countries to respect Israel’s independence and not intervene in its internal affairs.
“If not, then at least foreign government funding of organizations will be exposed to the Israeli public. These countries should express their views on what happens in Israel through recognized diplomatic means.
We will not allow this blatant intervention without revealing sources of funding to the public,” she stated.
In Shaked’s speech before the vote, she singled out Breaking the Silence, an NGO that collects testimony from former IDF soldiers, many of whom claim that Israel has committed war crimes. The group has long been controversial for its questionable methodology, frequently unsubstantiated and unverifiable allegations, and its practice of airing its claims abroad instead of bringing them to the Israeli legal system.
“Sixty percent of Breaking the Silence’s budget is from foreign countries,” she pointed out.
“The organization slanders the IDF in the world. No fewer than eight countries take part: Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the EU… They gave this organization NIS 2.3 million.”
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Shaked pointed out, receives 100 percent of its funding from foreign governments, including the Netherlands, the EU, Switzerland, Sweden, the UN and Germany.
Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, an international law expert at Northwestern University and the director of the International Law Department at the Kohelet Forum think tank in Jerusalem, supported the new law.
“Israeli NGO disclosure law [is] neutral, [and] not aimed at [leftwing] organizations,” Kontorovich wrote on Twitter. “EU funding [is] not neutral, aimed at only quite left organizations.
Bias is EU’s, not [the] law’s.”
Kontorovich also pointed out that the US House of Representatives requires anyone testifying before it to disclose all funding from foreign governments, unlike Israeli law, which only applies to majority foreign support and does not require NGO representatives to announce their funding when speaking to Knesset committees, but only to respond if asked.
Many NGOs came out against the law, calling it undemocratic.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, to which the law does not apply, said it is meant to “harm organizations strengthening Israeli democracy whose worldview is different from that of the majority in the coalition… Its real purpose is to delegitimize organizations whose activities the political majority does not like.”
Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, called the law a “grotesque masquerade” because NGOs are already required to report their sources of funding to the Non-Profit Registrar.
“The law applies specifically to donations from countries and not private donors, where most right-wing organizations [receive funding],” Adala’s spokesman said.
New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch, meanwhile, said the new law is “a deeply anti-democratic move, and Israelis from all sectors of civil society are already feeling its chilling effect. Those of us committed to a vision of Israel as a democracy that offers complete equality to all of its citizens as envisioned in the Declaration of Independence must redouble our efforts. Not only is freedom of expression for Israelis on the line, so is Israel’s standing as a liberal democracy.”
NGO Monitor, a watchdog institution researching foreign contribution organizations active in Israel, has long opposed the bill, saying it will not solve problems with such NGOs and their funding.
The organization called for Israel to launch a dialogue with European governments based on mutually agreed-upon guidelines such as preventing funding to NGOs active in anti-Israel or anti-Semitic campaigns, denying Israel’s right to exist or supporting terrorism.
The think tank said the Netherlands, Switzerland and UK have begun debating such guidelines.