Coalition rebel Oren: NGO bill downgrades Israeli democracy in world’s eyes

If the bill becomes law, it is likely to impact mostly left-wing NGOs, which receive the bulk of foreign government funding.

Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ANNE MANDLEBAUM)
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren
The NGO transparency bill will cause strategic harm to Israel’s relations with the West, MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) warned of the legislation that passed a first reading Monday night.
Oren was the most vocal critic in the coalition, and skipped the late-night vote in which it passed a first reading 50-43 without finding someone from the opposition to offset him – an act of rebellion against the coalition.
The Justice Ministry bill says that, in addition to an existing law requiring the reporting of foreign-government funding, any nonprofit organization that receives most of its funding from a foreign political entity will have to label itself as such in any publication.
If the bill becomes law, it is likely to impact mostly leftwing NGOs, which receive the bulk of foreign-government funding.
The Kulanu MK looked back at his time as ambassador to the US, when he was “summoned to the State Department and dressed down by [then-] assistant secretary of state for human rights Michael Posner, because a similar bill would have put us on a list of countries far less than democratic.”
Oren warned that if the bill remains in its current version, it will be similar to laws in Russian and China and lead the West to see Israel as less democratic and, thereby, having “a deleterious impact on the strategic relationship with the US.”
The bill will have “strategic ramifications,” Oren told The Jerusalem Post before the vote, adding: “Our enemies always say we’re not really democratic, so we shouldn’t give them ammo... We’re proving the NGOs who say we’re less than democratic right. They’re going to wear this shaming as a badge of honor. They’ll raise money off of this.”
The bill is “harmful to the State of Israel and helpful to the NGOs that delegitimize us,” he added.
Oren said he understands the motivation behind the bill and “the danger presented by the NGOs,” saying Israel has more NGOs operating in it than the entire Middle East combined and more than any other in the world per capita, adding that they receive a disproportionate amount of foreign funding. He recounted experiences with the controversial NGO Breaking the Silence, which deals with testimony from IDF soldiers accusing Israel of war crimes, when they visited Washington DC in 2012.
The Kulanu MK suggested that the right way to deal with the NGOs is to expand the bill to apply to private donations from abroad, as well, so it will impact organizations on both the Right and Left.
“You either have transparency, or you don’t,” he said.
As for embassies calling the MKs and a letter from 50 members of the European Parliament – mostly from the far-Left, including several who have called to boycott Israel – sent ahead of Monday’s vote, Oren confirmed that officials from other countries reached out to him.
“I think it’s within their right to express their concerns. As an ambassador, I would brief members of Congress.
I wouldn’t tell them how to vote, but I would say how Israel feels.
That’s legitimate,” he said.
Still, Oren differentiated between the US, which is “doing it out of concern,” and European states that “give money to the NGOs that oppose the policies of the democratically elected government of Israel.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, NGOs debated the wisdom of the bill or lack thereof.
Right-wing NGO Im Tirtzu, which has long advocated for such legislation and has campaigned against leftwing organizations, praised the bill.
“[The bill] is meant to deal with foreign agent organizations acting within [Israel] with foreign funding against Israel,” said Im Tirtzu CEO Alon Schvartzer.
However, he said it does not go far enough and called for foreign government donations to be taxed and for NGOs that receive them to not be allowed contact with government institutions.
“We don’t see the move as dramatic.
It’s no more than a small step in a necessary direction,” he added.
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, said the government was promoting legislation that targets and burdens human rights organizations fighting for a more just and democratic society.
“It is unfortunate that the Israeli government seeks to treat human rights activists – who help marginalized communities in Israel overlooked or abused by government authorities – as if they were foreign agents,” HRW said NGO Monitor, a research institution that analyzes the international NGO community, advocates for mutually agreed funding guidelines instead of legislation.
“Israel and Europe should address these issues jointly and reach understandings as to what is appropriate in foreign funding for civil society,” a statement from NGO Monitor reads.
“This will strengthen their shared democratic values, advance constructive dialogue and promote human rights in a matter consistent with the foreign policy of European governments.”
NGO Monitor’s suggested guidelines are: No funding for NGOs involved in anti-Semitism; no funding for NGOs involved in terrorism, support terrorism or have terrorism-affiliated staff; no funding for organizations that deny Israel’s right to define itself as a Jewish state, promote onestate frameworks or support “right of return” claims for millions of refugee descendants; no funding for NGOs involved in boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns; and no funding for NGOs promoting anti-Israel law fare.