Knesset legal adviser warns against NGO probes

Proposed inquiries into foreign funding "target one side of the ideological spectrum," Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Inon says.

knesset plenum (photo credit: Channel 99)
knesset plenum
(photo credit: Channel 99)
The Knesset’s House Committee delayed until Wednesday a vote on the establishment of two parliamentary committees of inquiry into NGO funding after Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Inon delivered a scathing legal opinion.
In the course of a long and stormy House Committee meeting on Tuesday, Inon calmly read his unexpectedly sharp criticism of the probes, at the end of which opposition MKs burst into rare applause.
The establishment of the probes “is a precedent that raises basic questions that stand at the heart of democratic rule,” he said.
Inon did say, however, that there was “no basis to claim that the establishment of the probes was illegitimate on the basis of narrow interpretations of legality or the Knesset’s authority to do so.”
The legal adviser went on to say that the two committees of inquiry “target one side of the ideological spectrum that happens to be in the opposition now,” and that, in doing so, threatened principles regarding the freedom of expression and freedom to protest.
After Inon’s comments, MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) said that the legal adviser’s statements were sufficient to warrant the resignations of the probes’ sponsors, MKs Danny Danon (Likud) and Fania Kirschenbaum (Israel Beiteinu).
Kadima MKs Orit Zuaretz and Shlomo Molla responded by firing off a missive to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who is known to oppose the establishment of the probes, asking him to exercise his authority to prevent hearings on the proposals.
But among the probes’ supporters, Inon’s opinion was greeted with disdain.
“Unfortunately, the legal opinion was based on statements made in the past by the Knesset speaker, and with all due respect, the topic is political and not legal,” MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) said.
Danon’s committee would examine “the involvement of foreign bodies and states in funding activities against the state and attempting to acquire its land,” and Kirschenbaum’s would probe “overseas funds and states funding Israeli organizations that participate in the delegitimization of IDF soldiers.”
The committee discussed appointments to the nine proposed slots to be filled on each committee of inquiry – two are allotted to Likud, two for Kadima, one shared by the National Union, Habayit Hayehudi and United Torah Judaism, one shared by Labor and Meretz, one for Israel Beiteinu, one for Shas, and one representing the three Arab parties, with the last likely to be filled on one of the committees by MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) at Tibi’s behest.
“We are boycotting the proceedings, but we were asked who is the most appropriate candidate for the slot, and that is unquestionably Ben-Ari,” Tibi explained.
Nevertheless, after almost three hours of heated debate, the committee postponed the vote on the probes’ mandates and members until Wednesday morning.
Earlier in the day, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee discussed a bill that would force NGOs to disclose, on a quarterly basis, any contributions received from foreign government entities.
The bill, advanced by MKs from Likud, Israel Beiteinu and the National Union as well as Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, proposes that NGOs be required to report on the source and size of the contribution as well as the specific purpose for which the money is dedicated. The bill would also require that any print campaigns that are funded by foreign governments display the source of the campaign’s funding.
Israel Beiteinu’s Rotem, who chairs the committee, backed down on a previous commitment to expand the bill to include all foreign entities, including private individuals, saying he changed his mind after learning that the left-wing MKs planned to use the bill to investigate funding sources for groups like Ateret Cohanim and Elad, which support Jewish settlement.
The bill was sharply criticized by left-wing MKs, who claimed its sole purpose was to single out and delegitimize left-wing organizations that were critical of government policies.
MK Hanna Sweid (Hadash) said the bill, if it became law, would legitimize violence against leftwing activists.
Debbie Gild-Hayo of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel described the legislation as selective and politically motivated, and urged the committee either to reject it or to expand it to include donations received from any foreign entity, including private donors. The bill currently covers only donations from government sources.
“We are in favor of transparency, but transparency is not the purpose of this bill, rather it’s all about political persecution. We publish all our donations on our website and anybody can look it up with the Corporations Authority. So far nobody has been able to explain how this bill in any way changes the existing situation,” Gild-Hayo said.
She said that while NGOs received relatively modest donations from foreign governments, organizations on the Right received millions from anonymous donors, and no one was taking them to task or accusing them of serving foreign interests.
Ronen Shuval, CEO of Im Tirtzu – The Second Zionist Revolution, a student organization closely associated with the push to examine the funding of left-wing NGOs, said there is a concrete difference between money received from foreign governments and those received from foreign individuals, because the former undermined Israeli democracy.
“We are not asking anybody to board a ship to Gaza or to badmouth IDF soldiers. All we’re asking for is transparency,” Shuval said. “We think that this bill is too watered down but that it’s a good start.”
Shuval refused to answer cries from left-wing MKs asking him who funded Im Tirtzu’s activities.
MK Haim Oron (Meretz) blasted representatives of academia and of NGOs that are subsidiaries of national institutions like the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, for what he described as moral cowardice. The groups, which asked to be exempted from the bill, said their ability to operate and conduct research would be harmed if they were forced to disclose foreign funding sources.
“Don’t you realize that you’ll be next?” challenged Oron. “It’s only a matter of time until people start challenging research you conduct in your institutions because it’s deemed to be political.”
MK Dov Henin (Hadash) said that if passed, the bill would hinder the ability of Israeli and Jewish organizations to operate abroad, claiming that many Israeli groups operated in foreign countries with the aid of government grants.