PM postpones cabinet discussion of NGO bill

Proposed legislation limiting foreign funding of NGOs temporarily shelved after A-G says unconstitutional; UKs Hague slams bills.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided Wednesday not to hold a discussion and vote on a bill to restrict foreign funding of NGOs at Sunday's cabinet meeting as had originally been scheduled.
Israeli media quoted sources in the Prime Minister's Office as saying the decision was made after Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein said Tuesday that the proposed legislation was unconstitutional.
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Weinstein warned Netanyahu that he would not be able to legally defend bills restricting foreign funding of NGOs in the High Court of Justice should they be passed into law.
The attorney-general said in a letter to Netanyahu, obtained by Israeli media on Tuesday, that the proposed legislation violated a number of rights.
"The bills severely damage a number of constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to equality."
Weinstein added in the letter that the passage of the laws would put Israel in a category with pariah states that have taken similar action.
The bills seemed all but dead after an appeal from Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin thwarted them.
However, last week, Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman requested that MKs Ophir Akunis (Likud) and Faina Kirschenbaum (Israel Beitenu) draft a new NGO bill, which the Ministerial Committee on Legislation is expected to authorize in the coming days.
The measure seeks to limit foreign-government funding to political organizations.
Following Netanyahu’s call for Akunis to further clarify and define which organizations are political, the new version of the bill divides NGOs into three categories, combining elements of both MKs’ original bills.
The new draft, which is signed by both Akunis and Kirschenbaum, forbids any foreign- government donations to NGOs that rejects Israel’s right to exist; incites racism; supports violence against Israel; supports putting Israeli politicians and IDF soldiers on trial in international courts; calls for boycotts of the state; or for IDF soldiers to refuse orders.
In addition, donations from within Israel to such organizations will be subject to a 45 percent tax.
Political organizations, such as B’Tselem or Peace Now, will also have to pay a 45% tax on donations.
However, they will have the option of undergoing a hearing in the Knesset Finance Committee, which may decide to waive the tax.
Non-political organizations that receive state funding will be tax-exempt and may receive unlimited donations from foreign governments.
This category includes Magen David Adom and the Hebrew University, among other NGOs.
The ministerial committee originally approved Kirschenbaum’s bill, which would levy a 45% tax on foreign governments’ donations to NGOs, and Akunis’s, which capped such contributions to political NGOs at NIS 20,000 - – but the initiatives were thwarted by an appeal from Begin, who declared them “dead.”
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed concern Wednesday over the NGO legislation.
"Britain is deeply concerned by proposals to pass legislation in the Israeli Knesset that would limit foreign funding of NGOs. This would have a serious impact on projects funded from the UK and elsewhere to support universal rights and values and would be seen as undermining the democratic principles the Israeli state is founded on," Hague said in a statement.
"While the passing of legislation is a matter for the Israeli Knesset, we strongly call upon all involved to reconsider this move and for the Israeli Government to make clear its own opposition to it.”
Hague's comments came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a closed session at the Saban Forum in Washington on Saturday, was reported in the Israeli press as having also criticized the NGO bills, saying she was concerned for Israel's democracy.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report