Knesset panel once again erupts into war over ‘NGO bill’

Berko said These groups are seeking to delegitimize Israel.

By
May 26, 2016 01:58
2 minute read.
Zehava Gal-On

Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On presenting the party's diplomatic platform. (photo credit: MERETZ)

 
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Several months after it ignited a global and national debate about Israeli democracy, the so-called NGO bill dropped into the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee like a massive bomb on Wednesday.

Committee members again erupted into substantive and personal attacks on one another reminiscent of past hearings over the highly charged issue.

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At one heated point, Meretz party leader Zehava Gal–On said the measure was befitting Russian President Vladimir Putin and called MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) “a rude bully who tries to sweet talk.” Smotrich responded rhetorically, “What – I am rude because I dare to think that what I say is democratic... You don’t own defining democracy.”

MK Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid) also said the bill was reminiscent of dictatorships, while MK Anat Berko (Likud) said that the groups the bill was designed to regulate want to “undermine and delegitimize” Israel.

The bill would oblige NGOs that receive funds from foreign government to identify themselves as such in interactions with lawmakers, on top of already needing to declare those funds in written reports to the state.

Supporters of the measure accuse foreign government of using Israeli NGOs to tamper with Israeli policy.

But critics say the bill unfairly focuses on foreign funding to try to shut the spigot of left-wing groups, while ignoring the funding of rightwing groups that comes more from private individuals.

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At its high point, the bill featured dueling and unusually contentious interviews and op-eds by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who supports the in initiative, and US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who opposes it.

On one side at Wednesday’s hearing, the bill was pushed by chairman Nissan Slomiansky and MKs Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), Berko, Oren Hazan (Likud) and Smotrich.

On the opposite side, it was opposed or major changes to it were demanded from MKs Mickey Rosenthal (Zionist Union), Revital Swid (Zionist Union), Jelin, Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), Gal-On, Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Osama Sa’adi (Joint List).

MK Bennie Begin (Likud) was perhaps one of the few who seemed to see merits to both sides of the debate, though he eventually said he would only support the bill if it covered private donors as well.

On the legal plane, there was also disagreement, with the committee’s legal adviser opposing the bill as improperly targeting specific organizations while not affecting others.

On the other hand, a Justice Ministry representative responded that the legislation would make a valuable contribution to making transparent how foreign states are trying to manipulate Israeli policy.

Both sides also claimed that US law proved their arguments for or against the bill.

Ilatov said that the US has had a similar law since 1938, showing that Israel has a right to demand “tagging” lobbying groups that receive foreign funds.

But the committee legal adviser said the US law is different than the Israeli bill because it “applies to agents of the foreign country and not to associations or human rights groups that receive funds.”

Shapiro had made the same point in debating Shaked about whether US law is similar, though Shaked argued that the essence was the same.

Slomiansky said that debate over the bill would continue next week.

Some have said that the legislation may get a boost with Yisrael Beytenu expected to join the coalition.

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