Israeli NGOs: Foreign political funding bill is pointless

ACRI: Measure part of a campaign to limit free civil society.

Leading Israeli NGOs on Monday criticized a bill proposed a day earlier that would require them to register with the Registrar of Political Parties if they take money from foreign entities.
The bill, sponsored by MK Ze'ev Elkin (Likud), received governmental backing from the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday and if approved by the Knesset, would require such NGOs to declare in all public appearances that they receive funding from foreign political entities.
The bill does not distinguish between left- and right-wing organizations.
According to Hagai El-Ad, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, current laws already make the issue of transparency a moot point for his organization and others like it.
"Transparency isn't only a legal requirement for us, it's the essence of our work," El-Ad said. "Human rights organizations in Israel are already transparent and steadfast about conducting their business legally. It's in our interest."
El-Ad said that since there were already legal safeguards that ensure transparency and since organizations like his were already required to disclose their donations in annual reports, the proposed bill had altogether different motives than transparency.
"We see this legislative initiative as part of a broader campaign to limit free civil society in Israel. The current legal requirements in regard to transparency are already well-established in current legislation, hence the attempt to further legislate in this context only exposes the real agenda behind it," El-Ad told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Mikhael Manekin, an activist with Breaking the Silence, said that while he had not read the bill, his organization had always believed in transparency. He questioned whether the bill's supporters had ulterior motives, saying the legal requirements for transparency were already in place.
Manekin said the bill and other recent legislation "smell of populism," and that campaigns to publicly associate NGOs with foreign donors were proof that information on donation sources was readily available to anyone who wanted it.
"On the transparency issue, we're great believers in transparency and we publish all our financial reports online, without any requirement to do so," he said.
Manekin added that such connections were easy to make because the donations were a matter of public record and published by the NGOs, negating any argument that greater transparency was needed.
"Left-wing organizations have proven time and time gain where their money comes from, which is why it's so easy to find out. So it makes one ask, what's the point of this?" he said.
Manekin added that Breaking the Silence, a left-wing organization that collects testimony from soldiers serving in the West Bank, only took money from donors "considered friendly by the State of Israel, not just by us," citing the governments of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom as examples.
"All this talk of bad guys and good guys is a bit pointless. We would never accept money from a non-friendly entity," Manekin said.
Anne Herzberg, the legal adviser to NGO Monitor, a right-wing organization that highlights foreign involvement in left-wing NGOs, praised Elkin's bill on Monday, saying in an e-mail to the Post that it would bring new transparency to the functioning of these organizations.
"The nature and scale of European influence in Israel is unique - in no other case do democratic countries use taxpayer money to support opposition groups in other democracies. The proposed legislation provides much needed transparency on these activities and allows for European parliamentary oversight and evaluation regarding the purposes to which these public funds have been put."
Herzberg denied allegations that the legislation was anti-democratic or part of a plot to subvert freedom of speech, saying "such arguments are a red herring. These organizations will still be able to express their views and will still have and do have access to considerable private funding to promote their ideology."
Groups opposed to the bill were "simply afraid that as a result of this heightened transparency, they may lose access to the tens of millions of euros in European taxpayer funds that has allowed them to disproportionately manipulate the marketplace of ideas," Herzberg said.
The bill would require such NGOs to list the goals of their organization and provide the address and ID number of every top activist and administrative employee.
A paper attached to the measure said its intent was to "increase thetransparency and to correct lacunas in the law regarding the funding ofpolitical activity in Israel by foreign political entities."
Accordingto the bill, "political activity" is "activity aimed at influencingpublic opinion in Israel or one of the branches of government in Israelregarding any element of Israel's domestic or foreign policy."
Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.