Panel approves bill limiting foreign funding to NGOs

5 ministers appeal decision by Ministerial C'tee; opposition MKs say proposed law undemocratic, leading state towards fascism.

Akunis 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Akunis 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday approved two bills limiting donations from foreign governments to NGOs – one by taxing them, and another by forbidding contributions over NIS 20,000.
Eleven ministers voted in favor of the bill, with five opposing it, including Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin, all from the Likud, as well as Independence members Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon and Agricultural Minister Orit Noked.
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The five ministers, under Begin’s leadership, appealed the decision and asked for further government discussion.
The legislation has support from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, according to one Israeli official.
“It is not right that foreign governments use their money to interfere in internal Israeli politics,” the official said. However, he cautioned that Netanyahu believes that one must be careful in drafting the language of the bills.
“It is important that we move ahead cautiously and consider the implications and the ramifications” of the legislation, the official said.
In addition, National Security Council Chairman Yaakov Amidror tried to convince the Ministerial Committee to oppose the bills, because the UK and European Union voiced opposition to the move.
Amidror’s opposition to the bill was met with criticism from Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, who called the security council chairman’s participation inappropriate, and voiced opposition to his comments.
“It’s not enough that the British and the EU send money to NGOs and use them to intervene in Israel’s affairs – now they want to be involved in our legislation?” Livnat said. “I don’t think that should influence us. It’s unacceptable that foreign countries will intervene in what happens here, a state that is fighting for its existence.”
The Ministerial Committee on Legislation decides the government’s stance on proposed bills. When a privately-drafted bill, as opposed to one by a ministry, is approved by the committee, it is then brought to a preliminary vote in the Knesset. If it passes the preliminary vote, it then goes through three Knesset readings, with at least one (but often more) committee discussion, before it can be passed.
However, any minister can appeal a Ministerial Committee on Legislation decision, at which point the bill is considered rejected by the government, unless the ministers vote to approve it a second time.
The first bill, proposed by Likud MKs Ophir Akunis and Tzipi Hotovely, as well as Israel Beiteinu faction Chairman Robert Ilatov, would ban foreign governments from contributing over NIS 20,000 to political NGOs, which they define in the bill’s text as “organizations seeking to influence the diplomatic or defense agenda of the State of Israel.”
MK Faina Kirschenbaum (Israel Beiteinu) proposed the second bill, which would levy a 45 percent tax on donations from foreign governments to any NGO in Israel, as opposed to banning contributions. An exception would be made for NGO activities that are supported by government ministries.
Kirschenbaum praised the committee’s decision, saying that her bill “fixes a lacuna in the law, which allowed foreign countries to intervene in the public discourse in Israel though cash flow to extremist organizations.”
“There is no reason for the State of Israel to give tax exemptions to such donations,” she stated. “I hope that this bill will pass all of the entire [legislative] process as quickly as possible.”
“The Ministerial Committee voted in favor of strengthening Israeli democracy,” Akunis said following the vote. “The absurd situation in which foreign countries fund political organizations in Israel is coming to an end. This law will fix the twisted situation that existed here for many years.”
MK Danny Danon (Likud) spoke out in favor of the bill, saying “any organization that acts against the state should be illegal. Stopping these organizations’ funding is the first step in taking the marginal extreme- Left plague out of Israeli society.
This bill tells foreign countries: Stay out of Israel’s internal affairs,” Danon said.
The bill faced criticism from some coalition members, with Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i saying “government intervention in human rights’ organizations activities is dangerous and against democratic values.”
“The attempt to undermine democracy and harassing NGOs will deepen Israel’s international isolation,” Vilna’i said on Sunday.
“This is a blow to democracy, which harms Israel’s image and will be used as a way to criticize the state,” MK Amir Peretz (Labor) said. “Instead of focusing on shrinking social gaps, the government is hunting down the media and trying to silence journalists and shut down human rights organizations.”
According to MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), “the coalition is leading us to a fascist regime.”
“The words ‘human rights’ and ‘civil rights’ have no meaning to the government,” Molla said. “They are trying to silence opponents and defy every democratic value.”
“The opposition’s criticism is hypocrisy,” Hotovely said. “It is the right and the responsibility of the State of Israel to be run according to the Israeli public’s decision, and not to give in to foreign attempts to buy influence in Israel.”
However, at least one member of the opposition spoke out in favor of the bill.
MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) said that the Ministerial Committee’s decision “cuts off the oxygen to the Trojan Horse also known as left-wing organizations, which are funded by Israel’s enemies, and admit to their motives and goals.”
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.