NGO scandal: Israel must change methods to fix credibility - analysis

Israel has yet to present a preponderance of evidence regarding its allegations that six Palestinian NGOs funneled money to the PFLP.

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the State Department in Washington, US, June 3, 2021.  (photo credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN / POOL / REUTERS)
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the State Department in Washington, US, June 3, 2021.

As the story develops over Israel’s decision last Friday to designate six Palestinian NGOs terrorist organizations, evoking criticism from Washington and shrieks of dismay from some on the Left, it is instructive to keep in mind the Karine A affair.

Remember the Karine A?

That was the ship laden with 50 tons of weapons that Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat tried to smuggle into the territories in January 2002, even as he was negotiating through the US a ceasefire with Israel during the Second Intifada, and after he had forsworn terrorism.

It was a watershed moment. George W. Bush, the US president at the time, wrote that he never again trusted Arafat, nor even spoke to him, after that incident.

But imagine that instead of towing the weapons-laden ship into Eilat Harbor and having then prime minister Ariel Sharon go to Eilat and address the nation and thank the IDF from the ship, Israel had simply announced that a boat carrying a massive amount of weapons was interdicted.

Palestinian militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) take part in a military show in Gaza City September 2 (credit: REUTERS)Palestinian militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) take part in a military show in Gaza City September 2 (credit: REUTERS)

Imagine that Jerusalem said that because of security constraints – not wanting to reveal modes of operation or possibly compromise sources – it could not reveal much about the operation or the weapons discovered on board. Imagine if Israel had just said, “Trust us, what we found is bad and dangerous.”

Who would have believed it?

As it were, some leading international journalists did not believe the Israeli account, hinting that it was all an Israeli fabrication meant to smear Arafat. But those voices, thankfully, were in the whole drowned out because of a preponderance of evidence.

How is that relevant to Israel’s declaring six leading Palestinian NGOs – Addameer, Al Haq, Bisan Center, DCI-P, Samidoun, and UAWC – as being affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist organization? Because in this case, Israel has yet failed to present that preponderance of evidence.

And the failure to do so has led to the State Department criticizing the move, with spokesman Ned Price saying on Friday, “We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance.” The US, he said, will be “engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.”

Forget the State Department. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, a security cabinet member, called on the government to come forth with proof.

“As a democratic, sovereign and powerful state, and in a situation of occupation – Israel must be very, but very careful in imposing restrictions on Palestinian civil society organizations,” he said. “This has important implications in... politics, foreign relations and human rights.”

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev, another member of the security cabinet, also said he was unaware of the intelligence information that led to the new designation of these organizations. He asked in a KAN Reshet Bet interview why these organizations, which have been operating for years, were decreed to be illegal now. Judging from the comments of Horowitz and Bar Lev, it is clear that this matter was not raised in the security cabinet beforehand.

Even when Israel has abundant proof that a military or legal action it has taken is justified because of security concerns, there will be skeptics. Just look at how the smuggled Iranian nuclear archives in 2018 failed to convince everyone that Tehran had been lying about its nuclear program.

How much more skepticism will there be when the proof provided is not overwhelming but constitutes a Defense Ministry communiqué, and when, in fact, even members of the security cabinet have not seen the raw intelligence data.

That the security cabinet was not briefed about this beforehand and informed in detail of the rationale for a step that could have significant diplomatic fallout is a sign that something is not working as it should.

Defense Ministry officials were cited, after Price’s comment, as saying that the information was passed on to Washington. But, apparently, not necessarily through the right channels, or to all the right people, something that seems to be a chronic problem in Israel’s public diplomacy.

During May’s fighting in Gaza, the IAF took down the 12-story al-Jalaa building in Gaza City that it said housed Hamas military assets, but which also housed the offices of AP and Al Jazeera.

Israel tarried in providing the intelligence it had on this, and as it did so, a narrative took hold that the country was targeting foreign news organizations because it did not like their coverage. Likewise, a narrative is gaining traction now, spread by organizations woefully biased against Israel, that Israel is targeting human-rights groups because it does not like what these groups are uncovering.

In May, as now, Israel said it provided the US with information about why it struck that building in Gaza. But then, as now, leading administration spokespeople said they had not seen it; then it was Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

That the Jalaa incident did not cause a major rift in ties with Washington indicates that the Americans were eventually satisfied with the intel provided. But the question that was asked then, and needs to be asked now, is why was it not provided immediately?

One common denominator in both the Jalaa incident and Friday’s announcement is Benny Gantz as defense minister. He seems to be working from an outdated assumption that if the Defense Ministry, or the IDF, says something, people will automatically believe it and that all it will take to convince the nation and the world of the propriety of particular actions is for the defense minister to sign off on them.

While that may have been the case 40 or 50 years ago, it is the case no longer. For a myriad of reasons, the IDF and the Defense Ministry have a credibility gap. This gap exists with a small segment of the Israeli public; for instance, hard-left human-rights lawyer Michael Sfard essentially said on KAN Reshet Bet on Sunday that he believes the organizations that were banned more than he believes the security establishment. And this gap exists even more so with the world.

One can debate whether this credibility gap is justified or not. But what seems undebatable is that Israel needs to adapt to this reality, and act accordingly.

To take a step as significant as designating as terrorist organizations NGOs that have been around for years, some of whom have received funding from foreign governments, necessitates not only a thorough investigation, which only the most cynical would say never took place but also the preparation of a detailed dossier proving the point.

And that dossier needs to be made public as soon as possible because the days when everyone just believes and takes at face value what is written in the Defense Ministry or IDF press releases have long passed.