Controversial NGO bill to go to first Knesset vote

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked favors adding a clause that would require representatives of the relevant NGOs to wear a noticeable tag when they are in the Knesset.

A woman reads testimonies during a gathering in Tel Aviv to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Israeli NGO "Breaking the Silence" (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
A woman reads testimonies during a gathering in Tel Aviv to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Israeli NGO "Breaking the Silence"
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
The much-debated NGO transparency bill is expected to go to a first reading in the Knesset Monday night.
The version of the Justice Ministry legislation set to go to a vote states that any non-profit organization that receives most of its funding from a foreign political entity will have to present itself as such, as well as list which countries support the NGO in any forum in which they are speaking with elected officials and in any publicly available texts – whether in advertisements, online, in written reports, etc.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s office said changes were likely to be made in Knesset committees.
Shaked favors adding a clause from a similar bill by another Bayit Yehudi MK, Bezalel Smotrich, that would require representatives of the relevant NGOs to wear a noticeable tag when they are in the Knesset, much like lobbyists, who must wear their Knesset ID tags on bright orange lanyards.
However, last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that while he otherwise supports the NGO bill, he opposes the nametag component, which has been highlighted in many of the bill’s detractors’ criticism.
Netanyahu also called for the bill to apply to all foreign government funding for NGOs, not just contributions that make up the bulk of an organization’s donations. In addition, he said the legislation should be made more similar to guidelines followed by the US House of Representatives for witnesses testifying before congressional committees, who must disclose any contracts or payments from the US government or foreign governments received in the preceding three years by the witness or entity she or he represents.
Responding to critics, Netanyahu said: “I do not understand how the demand for transparency is anti-democratic.
The opposite is true.
In democratic regimes, you want to know who is funding NGOs, from the Right, the Left, up or down, and funding by governments is certainly something the public should know about.”
Earlier this month, US envoy Dan Shapiro came out publicly against the proposed legislation, as have various European governments. Netanyahu’s proposal to make the legislation similar to norms used in the US Congress is an attempt to mute that criticism.
NGO Monitor, a prominent critic of foreign government funding for Israeli NGOs, has said that Israeli legislation against the contributions is counterproductive, in that it brings an emotional, intense internal political debate, rather than address the problem with the funding.
“The issue of large-scale and unprecedented NGO funding from foreign governments to manipulate Israeli politics is a serious issue,” NGO Monitor resident Prof. Gerald Steinberg said in December. “When countries like Holland, Denmark or Germany use NGO funding instead of the accepted diplomatic channels for relations between states, not only do they hurt the legitimacy of civil society, they attack Israeli sovereignty. For years, NGO Monitor has documented the absence of transparency and independent evaluation in the transfer of European taxpayer budgets to such organizations. Funds for NGOs operating under the facade of human rights are used to oppose peace efforts, through such initiatives as ment and Sanctions] campaigns, and in some cases, endorse and promote anti-Semitic themes.”
Instead, NGO Monitor promotes guidelines for European governments to avoid funding such activities.
Israel Democracy Institute fellows Prof. Mordechai Kremitzer and Dr. Amir Fuchs said Netanyahu’s proposal is very different from the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, which does not differentiate between private and government funding, and applies to organizations managed by a foreign entity. In addition, they wrote, the change to the House of Representatives’ rules, which was not passed as legislation, is also different from the Israeli bill as it only requires witnesses to detail their foreign funding when appearing before a committee, and only if the country is relevant to the discussion.
“Harming organizations will deteriorate the modern tradition of human rights that developed after World War II.
Harming organizations will hurt Israel’s international standing and could lead to a series of lawsuits in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, even though state institutions currently allow and implement processes of independent, internal criticism,” they wrote.
Much of the criticism for the bill within Israel comes from the Left, and the bill is expected to harm far more left-wing NGOs than rightwing ones, because of the sources of their funding Left-wing NGOs, their activities and their funding have been in the spotlight in recent weeks. This began with President Reuven Rivlin’s participation in a conference at which a head of Breaking the Silence was taking part in a separate panel, which launched a flurry of activity against the NGO, including a petition signed by dozens of MKs.
Breaking the Silence collects testimony from former IDF soldiers, many of whom claim Israel committed war crimes.
The group has long been controversial for its questionable methodology, frequently unsubstantiated and unverifiable allegations, and its practice of airing its claims abroad instead of bringing them to the Israeli legal system.
In recent weeks, right-wing NGO Im Tirzu launched a campaign in support of a different, but related bill, that would label representatives of NGOs who accept foreign funding as foreign agents. Im Tirzu posted a video naming specific heads of organizations, including Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, and the Public Committee Against Torture, as moles of foreign countries who encourage terrorism.
Weeks later, the New Israel Fund, which funds some of the organizations targeted, put out an online and outdoor ad campaign with pictures of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated, with the text: “They already took care of this foreign agent.”
On Monday, the NIF plans to release a petition against the NGO transparency bill, signed by over 2,000 Diaspora Jews, stating that Israel is “moving away from its fundamental values as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Meanwhile, Channel 2’s investigative reporting show Uvda broadcast hidden-camera footage of Ezra Nawi, an activist and founder of farleft organization Ta’ayush (coexistence in Arabic), and B’Tselem researcher Nasser Nawaja organizing violent demonstrations and confrontations with IDF soldiers, as well as bragging that they turned in Palestinians who sold land to Jews to the Palestinian Authority to be tortured and killed. Channel 2 News also found that Nawi had been paid by Breaking the Silence and Rabbis for Human Rights. In the ensuing days, Nawi, Nawajah and an additional Ta’ayush activist Guy Butavia were arrested for contact with a foreign agent and conspiracy to commit a crime.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.