Europe’s NGO cold war to ‘mitigate pro-Israel voices’

European officials routinely deny that funding is politically motivated or specifically targeted at Israel.

European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels (photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
The cold war between Europe and Israel over the politics of nongovernmental organizations escalated sharply with the discovery of a Belgian strategic document that includes funds for “mitigating the influence of pro-Israel voices.”
It is hard to imagine NGO funding objectives aimed at “mitigating the influence of pro-Palestinian voices,” or, going beyond our conflict, to “mitigate the influence of pro-European Union voices” during the United Kingdom’s intense Brexit debate. But what seems absurd in other contexts is standard policy when Israel is involved.
The specific targeting of “pro-Israeli voices” through NGO funding is part of a plan (known as the Joint Strategic Framework, or JSF) prepared for and approved by Belgium’s Ministry for Development Cooperation. It is a public document, written by five NGOs that are also major recipients of the funds – including the Catholic aid group Broederlijke Delen, Oxfam Solidarity, Solidarité Socialiste, and Viva Salud. They are leaders in anti-Israel political campaigns, using taxpayer funds from Belgian citizens. From 2017 to 2021, at least €8.6 million will have been allocated to these organizations.
The Belgian strategic plan is further evidence that European NGO funding needs fundamental reform. For many years, the EU and individual European governments have provided tens of millions of euros, kronor and pounds annually to Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, under headings of development aid, human rights, international law, peace and democracy.
For many Israelis, including the actual representatives of Israeli democracy, European funding for these organizations is seen as a major source of political warfare, including boycotts, lawfare and, in some cases, antisemitism. The NGOs that produced the Belgian strategic plan are deeply involved in propaganda that singles out Israel. In addition to targeting pro-Israel voices, their planning document includes “advocacy work on the Belgian and European level” for campaigns such as “Made in Illegality... and organizing advocacy tours to Palestine and Israel for policy-makers.” “Made in Illegality” is a boycott effort led by the Belgian National Center for Cooperation Development.
IN RESPONSE, European officials routinely deny that this funding is politically motivated or specifically targeted at Israel, while they maintain tight secrecy, which prevents oversight or informed debate.
But the policy has become harder to defend, particularly after NGO Monitor research uncovered numerous European-funded projects involving NGOs with links to Palestinian terrorist organizations.
In Belgium, for example, NGO Monitor exposed a project under the JSF strategic plan and funded by the government to target “pro-Israel voices”. This project is run by the Defense for Children International Palestine – a propaganda NGO linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist organization (the PFLP is on EU’s list of terrorist groups). As a result of the research, criticism in Europe has led to significant cuts, such as the closure of a Ramallah-based “human rights and international law” framework involving four countries.
The anti-Israel NGO network responded angrily, particularly since the European-funded Israeli and Palestinian NGOs enjoyed many years of funding without oversight or criticism. Instead of dealing with the facts, NGO industry leaders adopted a strategy of denial, confrontation, defamation and silencing. This is the background behind the strategic plan’s objective of “mitigating pro-Israel voices.”
This strategy is not empty rhetoric or merely theoretical. In January, during a discussion of “sanctions against the colonization policy of Israel” in the Belgian Parliament, officials from umbrella groups affiliated with the partners in the strategic document defamed NGO Monitor under the heading of “Occupation and Shrinking Space.” The Israeli research institute was targeted as one of “the most threatening actors” (apparently responding to our detailed information on the terrorist links of a number of recipients of European funding). These ostensible advocates of free speech and civil society, which are also funded by the EU and the Belgium government, called on EU officials to “review their relationships and engagement” with “groups such as NGO Monitor.”
The responses of the Belgium government further highlight the absurdities. One official quoted in a media report declared: “Each NGO receives a subsidy, but what they write on this document is part of their autonomy as representatives of civil society. We do not exercise this type of control over NGOs; this is one of the main principles of democracy.” In no other area of government funding do the recipients determine the strategy and objectives, without oversight or due diligence.
The government-funded NGO cold war against Israel extends far beyond Belgium. The EU and individual European governments provide over €100m. every year to this NGO network. In most cases, the funding decisions are made amid total secrecy, with no parliamentary oversight, documentation or public debate.
To end the absurdities of silencing researcher groups under the slogan of “mitigating pro-Israel voices,” the entire NGO funding process requires radical restructuring.
The writer is emeritus professor of political science, Bar-Ilan University, and president of the Institute for NGO Research, Jerusalem.