The Israeli government’s approval of legislation that would require nongovernment organizations that receive foreign funding to identify themselves as such is aimed at muzzling the political left, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon said on Sunday.
Galon reacted to the announcement by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation that it had okayed the so-called “transparency bill,” which was initiated by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party.
The measure seeking government backing is the latest of several iterations 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.
“The government decision to support the NGO law promoted by Shaked is a continuation of the witch hunt, political persecution, and censorship of human rights groups and left-wing organizations that criticize the government’s conduct,” Galon said.
“The goal of this proposal is to harm the legitimacy and operation of NGOs affiliated with the political left and human rights groups as a first step before outlawing them entirely and banning their activities,” she said.
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 prevent politicians from raising most of their money abroad. She noted that Israel's top senior right-wing politicians do the overwhelming majority of their fundraising abroad, singling out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and Education Minister Naftali Bennnet.
"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.
Meanwhile, on the political 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 Zionist group Im Tirtzu, Matan Peleg.
Im Tirtzu made headlines last week when it published a provocative video depicting a Palestinian terrorist about to stab an innocent bystander while giving the impression that the act was encouraged by various left-wing NGOs, including Breaking the Silence, B’tselem, and the Public Committee Against Torture.
“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,” Peleg said.
Bayit Yehudi faction head Shuli Muallem responded to the criticism of 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.
Critics say the legislation is discriminatory because it is mainly groups that oppose the right-wing government's policies towards Palestinians which receive money from foreign governments and the European Union.
Private funds from overseas, such as money donated to Israeli groups that support Jewish settlement on land Palestinians seek for a state, are not addressed in the bill, which is widely expected to win parliamentary approval.
There are more than 30,000 NGOs registered in Israel, about half of them active. Around 70 of those groups focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and receive funds either from the European Union as a whole, or individual governments, including Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Norway.
Shaked has said she was determined to crack down on those who take foreign money and then criticize Israel, accusing some NGOs of "eroding the legitimacy of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state."
Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Shaked said the Israeli public had a "right to know when foreign governments are involved in the domestic matters of another country."
From the point of view of advocacy groups, the bill is a dangerous step that would put Israel in a category with the likes of Russia, Turkey and neighboring Egypt, which often struggle to accept internal criticism and have banned some NGOs.
On Twitter, Peace Now, an Israeli NGO that tracks and opposes Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, called the legislation "a hate crime against democracy."
"If the minister of justice is truly interested in transparency, she must first and foremost promote legislation requiring right-wing organizations to expose the millions they receive from private donors abroad and from the state budget," it said.Reuters contributed to this report.