A window into Europe

A recent discussion in the European Parliament on Israel’s so-called NGO transparency bill reveals an important divide between European representatives.

European Parliament meeting 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Christian Lutz)
European Parliament meeting 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Christian Lutz)
On September 8, while Jewish Israelis were preparing for Rosh Hashana, the European Parliament (EP) was holding yet another plenary debate with Israel on the agenda. The debate was somewhat unusual in that it not only addressed a draft bill several stages away from becoming law, but a bill that does not yet exist. While the debate shed little light on the legislation in question – the socalled NGO transparency bill – it did provide a penetrating insight into European attitudes toward Israel.
That bill, which passed its first reading in February, seeks to inject greater transparency into the processes by which foreign governments channel money to Israeli NGOs. Aspects of the earliest draft were objected to by some MKs and foreign government- funded groups. In subsequent negotiations between Labor and Likud parliamentarians, those aspects were removed. The new version, approved by the Knesset’s Law Committee in August, will require more regular reporting and will ensure that the public has greater and more timely access to funding information.
The question on which the EP debate was centered was submitted in April and was based entirely on the discarded version of the bill. The MEPs who authored the question at the behest of Israeli NGOs were made aware that the bill to which it referred was no longer extant. Nevertheless they insisted on holding the debate.
Most of the MEPs who participated in the debate did recognize that the bill had undergone substantial modifications. The majority, echoing a position paper from Israeli NGOs, argued that the bill should apply equally to foreign government and private funding – i.e., that it is legitimate, but that its scope should be widened. A number of the same MEPs asserted that the bill is “onerous” and “draconian” – i.e., that it is illegitimate.
LOGIC ASIDE, the discussion revealed an important divide between the European representatives. About two-thirds of the MEPs who participated in the debate adopted a paternalistic attitude, arguing implicitly or explicitly that the Israeli political and legal system is unable or unwilling to uphold democracy and human rights. In their view, only careful EU oversight and intervention can ensure that Israel remains on the proper course.
Numerous MEPs also demonstrated their susceptibility to the NGO “halo effect,” whereby any group which inserts the phrase “human rights” into its self-description is imbued with an aura of credibility and objectivity. For example, a British MEP mentioned Israeli NGOs (the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and Mossawa) which assured an EP subcommittee that “they undertake bona fide human rights work but... [are] harassed by accusations of political bias.”
That MEP failed to note that PCATI is headed by a former candidate for the Left-communist Hadash party, and that the NIF-funded Mossawa rejects Israel as a Jewish state.
However about one-third of the MEPs involved in the debate took a different view: They stressed that Israeli democracy and civil society are in fact open and vibrant; that a debate over a nonexistent bill reflects hostile attitudes, and that double standards were being applied.
The Finnish MEP Sari Essayah pointed out that “all we politicians would be very astonished if some fellow European member state government started funding our national NGOs for political campaigns.”
British MEP Charles Tannock noted that Israel is “characterized by a vigorous civil society in which all shades of nonviolent opinion can be openly represented and discussed.”
MEP Diane Dodds from Northern Ireland explained that “the requirement that foreign government support should be acknowledged in public advertising campaigns and Web sites is comparable with the EU funding requirement to acknowledge and promote the receipt of EU funding.”
Despite these statements, the debate failed to touch on several core issues. The crux of the matter is not the frequency of NGO reporting or the scope of the proposed bill’s application (though these are important.) Rather, the real issue is that the EU and its member states are among the main supporters both of NGOs leading the international delegitimization of Israel and of highly politicized NGOs which these countries use as a means of manipulating Israeli political discourse.
Many of these European government-funded NGOs, such as the Coalition of Women for Peace, which receives grants via the EU’s Partnership for Peace, are leading the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns. Other EU-funded groups such as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Adalah are involved in attempts to have Israeli leaders tried in foreign courts on false charges of war crimes. Some of these “partners for peace,” such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions oppose a two-state solution. Leaked EU documents reveal that earlier funding to Peace Now was intended to convince Israelis from the former Soviet Union to shift their votes leftward.
The representative of the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, at the EP debate summarized the discussion by affirming that “we will continue to provide funding to NGOs for eligible projects which respond to our objectives.”
Presumably the delegitizimation of Israel and attempts to manipulate its very democratic and complex internal debates are not among those objectives.
The writer is a research fellow and Knesset liaison at NGO Monitor.