Will Knesset put rights groups, foreign gov'ts in the dock?

Israel Beiteinu and some in the Likud are ushering in a new era of McCarthyism.

Faina Kirschenbaum  311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Faina Kirschenbaum 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Yesterday’s Knesset agenda included a proposal by the House Committee to approve the establishment of parliamentary committees of inquiry to examine foreign government financing of Israeli human-rights organizations, and of the organized purchase of land in Israel by hostile bodies, as well as the activities of Israeli organizations allegedly involved in delegitimizing the IDF.
The Knesset Rules of Procedure deal with the technicalities of establishing such committees, inter alia providing for the membership of opposition representatives – a provision that is also mentioned in Basic Law: The Knesset.
However, there is no mention, either in the Rules or in the Law, of the types of matters these committees may deal with, or their exact powers.
Parliamentary committees of inquiry in democratic countries are considered one of the tools that parliaments can use to supervise the government; the issues investigated are in the sphere of public administration rather than civil society. One example frequently mentioned as a flagrant breach of this rule is the series of investigations held by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the US, which reached horrendous dimensions during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and are associated with the name of senator Joseph McCarthy.
The current proposals were first raised in January 2010 by MKs Faina Kirschenbaum (Israel Beiteinu) and Danny Danon (Likud), and received the initial approval of the plenum, which returned the matter to the House Committee for further preparation. In the stormy debates that took place at the time, opposition MKs pointed out that most of the information the initiators claimed to be seeking was freely available on the Internet, and that since there were very clear legal provisions regarding the information NGOs were obliged to publish, including their sources of funding, if they failed to publish this information, or if there were a suspicion that they were in breach of the law, a complaint could be lodged with the appropriate authorities.
IT IS the job of the police and the State Attorney’s Office to investigate any suspicions of wrongdoing – not that of MKs, who are neither qualified nor equipped to carry out such investigations.
The opposition MKs added that the proposals appeared to be part of a general campaign by Israel Beiteinu and a group of Likud MKs to shut the mouths of the Left, and to curtail the activities of various human-rights organizations – primarily, but not only, those directly associated with the Israeli Arab community – and delegitimize them. The term “McCarthyism” kept popping up in the debate.
Neither Israel Beiteinu nor the Likud MKs who support the committees’ establishment deny that there is ideology involved. In a recent TV interview, MK Yariv Levin (Likud) chairman of the House Committee and one of the active supporters of the recent initiatives, defended this activity, claiming that even though the Right had been in power for a while, it had so far refrained from actually ruling and had acted with excessive caution. He added that those days were over, and that the Right was now legislating in accordance with its political agenda.
However, not everyone on the Right would agree with him.
What he regards as excessive caution, other right-wing MKs regard as political wisdom and a real concern for democratic principles, which separates the legitimate Right from some of its less-wholesome manifestations. One might argue that the proposals to set up committees of inquiry, as well as some of the bills proposed by MKs from the Right since the election of the 18th Knesset, have less to do with a revolt against past caution, and more with a competition between Israel Beiteinu and the Likud for the hearts of the right-wing public.
BECAUSE OF the make-up of the 18th Knesset, the success rate of these initiatives is relatively high, despite the fact that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and some Likud ministers, including Dan Meridor, Bennie Begin and Michael Eitan, are doing their best to contain the flood.
At the time of writing it is not yet known whether or not the plenum approved the establishment of the committees. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused to impose coalition discipline due to his concern that Israel's image abroad will be further tarnished by the establishment of these committees, it is believed that the initiative will fail – at least at this stage.
Should the committees nevertheless be approved, there is doubt whether they will be effective, both because no one from the opposition will agree to serve on them, and because they cannot order witnesses to appear before them.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.