Think About It: In the absence of good faith – the NGO transparency bill

Since most NGOs in Israel today have difficulty raising money, they seek and accept contributions from anyone from whom it is legal to receive contributions - including foreign governments.

Ayelet Shaked
Both Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the initiator of the NGO Transparency Bill, which deals with NGOs that receive over half their funding from foreign governments, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has come out in her defense, have used as one of their defenses of the proposed legislation the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and a 2015 amendment of the US House of Representatives Standing Rules.
On the basis of both the letter and the spirit of these documents, the comparison is highly problematic, and it is thus not surprising that the American authorities reacted as if they had been bitten by a snake.
The facts are as follows. Section 614(f) of FARA states that, “Whenever any agent of a foreign principal [which may be a government, political party, a person, or a combination of persons as defined in §611(b) – SHR] required to register under this sub-chapter, appears before any committee of Congress to testify for or in the interests of such foreign principal, he shall, at the time of such appearance, furnish the committee with a copy of his most recent registration statement filed with the Department of Justice as an agent of such foreign principal for inclusion in the records of the committee as part of his testimony.”
The January 6, 2015, amendment of Title XI, Section 2 (5) of the House of Representatives Standing Rules added a provision to the effect that witnesses appearing before a congressional committee in a nongovernmental capacity, who have received contracts or payments originating with a foreign government, should declare so, specifying “the amount and country of origin of any payment or contract related to the subject matter of the hearing” (emphasis added – SHR).
“Bull’s-eye,” both Netanyahu’s and Shaked’s advisers must have said when the two documents were brought to their attention and they noticed mention of bodies receiving funding from foreign governments. The only problem is that the details and context of the specific provisions were conveniently disregarded, and thus the public was deliberately or inadvertently misinformed.
The fact is that none of the Israeli human rights organizations which are being deliberately targeted by Shaked’s bill would be regarded as foreign agents under FARA if they were American and operating in the US, even though most of them receive contributions from foreign governments.
All these organizations are Israeli NGOs, which are pursuing legitimate goals (even if some of them occasionally use objectionable means) that the Israeli Right disapproves of, and is trying to delegitimize by any means. These goals are: honoring the human rights of the Palestinians residents of the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967, for as long as Israel remains in occupation of such territories; and ending the occupation under appropriate conditions, since they believe that the continued occupation is corrupting Israeli society and eroding its democracy. The fact is that these goals are also the explicit or tacit goals of several mainstream Israeli Zionist political parties, and what the Right is suggesting is that the legitimacy of these parties is also in question.
But to return to the targeted NGOs, it should be noted that none of them were established by a foreign government or any other foreign entity to further their own interests.
Admittedly, many of these NGOs receive most of their financing from foreign governments. However, it should be added that since most NGOs in Israel today have difficulty raising money, they seek and accept contributions from anyone from whom it is legal to receive contributions – including foreign governments.
This does not turn them into agents of foreign governments, just like various right-wing NGOs are not suspected of promoting the resurrection of Jesus just because they receive contributions from American evangelists, and Ayelet Shaked is not suspected of engaging in promoting illicit arms and drug deals because she received contributions from a shady Belgian diamond dealer subsequently arrested on charges of illicit arms and drug trafficking.
But returning to foreign governments, aren’t their contributions to human rights organizations in other countries “foreign intervention,” prohibited by international law? That is what Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in 2006 in reply to criticism of his clamp-down on Russian human rights organizations, which were allegedly funded by foreign governments, and again in 2012 in reply to criticism of his draconian Foreign Agents Law.
However, since the upholding of human rights and the battle against human rights violations are the subject of various international conventions, international law does not consider the activities of governments in support of the preservation of human rights in other countries to be illegal intervention in their domestic affairs. In fact, under certain circumstances even use of force for this purpose is justified.
Thus many European states openly include such activities in their declared foreign policies. Russia and China are among the targets of such activities, as are many third world states. That Israel should find itself included in this list of states is nothing to be proud about, and cannot be attributed simply to anti-Semitism, as many in Israel are inclined to do.
It should be noted that in the case of Israel such activities very rarely involve human rights abuses in Israel proper, but rather human rights abuses that occur on a daily basis in what the Israeli Right considers an inalienable part of Israel but the rest of the world considers occupied territories that are not part of the sovereign territory of Israel. The fact that the IDF and other Israeli state authorities frequently make efforts to minimize such abuses does not change the fact that the mere occupation of a people against its will cannot but result in human rights violations.
As to the 2015 amendment of the HoR Standing Rules, it should be noted that even before it was passed witnesses appearing before a congressional committee for hearings in a nongovernmental capacity were supposed to disclose the recent receipt of federal grants and contracts, either by the witness himself or by an entity represented by him, before their appearance.
In other words, it is not just witnesses who are in the pay of a foreign government that must report, but also those in the pay of the US government. Thus, if Israel were to adopt the American provision, both in letter and spirit, bodies like the WZO Settlement Division or all sorts of right-wing NGOs that receive direct or indirect Israeli government funding would have to declare as much before appearing before a Knesset committee.
And finally, it should be noted that Section 2 (5)(D) of the Standing Rules stipulates that the declarations required from witnesses concerning grants or contracts from either federal or foreign government sources should be made public in electronic form, but “with appropriate redactions to protect the privacy or security of the witness.”
In other words, in the rules the provision is matter-of-fact, and for sincere purposes, and not for purposes of shaming or deterrence.
That is certainly not the case with the NGO Transparency Bill, which singles out one category: left-wing, human rights NGOs, who no matter how hard they try to comply with all the bureaucratic requirements can always expect some new decree to fall on their heads.
So please, Shaked and Netanyahu, if you want to turn the pursuit of human rights in general and Palestinian human rights in particular into an offense in Israel, and shut down the human rights NGOs – simply say so. Just stop trying to justify yours actions by hiding behind a crass misrepresentation of American rules and laws.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.