Uncertain waters: Can civic society in Israeli survive?

The political tangle and the future of civil society in Israel.

An empty Knesset Plenum  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An empty Knesset Plenum
Civil society in Israel is facing an unprecedented challenge, leaving the most vulnerable populations unprotected. With 4,573 NGOs in Israel receiving government support, accounting for over 33% of their budgets, the ongoing political tangle will have far-reaching effects on civil society.
On March 2, Israel will hold elections for the 23rd Knesset, the third elections in one year after two elected Knessets did not succeed in establishing a government. Thus, Israel is opening 2020 with a temporary government which, among many other challenges, cannot approve a state budget. If the upcoming elections do yield a government, the process of preparing and approving the state budget will still take months.
In the absence of an approved budget law, the government’s finances are managed according to a consecutive budget, according to which the allocation to each office is based on the last approved state budget divided by 12, allocated monthly (with minor adjustments).
Under a consecutive budget, the Treasury accountant is responsible for all budgetary expenses, is not subject to supervision by the Knesset or government, and is required to abide by strict budgetary conduct. A major implication of this state of budgetary limbo is that temporary financial commitments cannot be extended, and special committees are needed to approve any new or renewed financial contracting.
This new reality of financial uncertainty will have direct and far-reaching budgetary implications for civil society organizations in Israel. Civil society fills in the gaps between the private sector and the public sphere by providing social, communal, educational, health, religious and welfare services. One of the most crucial roles of civil society is to identify social needs, develop innovative cross-sector solutions, and shape Israel’s social policy. Civil society’s strength comes from its ability to be independent in its practices and forward-thinking in its reactions. In other words, civil society forms an integral part of the social fabric in Israel and, as Robert Putnam argued, a vibrant civil society contributes to successful governance and democracy.
The government supports civil society activities through state funding allocated to non-governmental entities for specific activities and causes, provided on the base of egalitarian tests and competitive tenders; and through joint ventures, in most of which the organization commits to match state funding. With the government unable to contract new projects and allocate new budgets for ongoing projects, civil society organizations may find themselves in financial distress. Crippled by a lack of funds, it could be increasingly difficult for organizations to develop new projects or advance ongoing ones.
NGOs are of great economic importance, with a total annual budget estimated at over NIS 45 billion, and more than 400,000 employees across Israel. However, NGOs are not only an economic asset, they are also a necessary partner in developing, promoting and implementing government policy. With an unclear political future, the lack of a budget is poised to have profound economic and social effects on Israel.
The absence of a government will be a true test to civil society organizations’ resilience, flexibility and financial self-sufficiency, and the support of philanthropy will be crucial in allowing civil society to continue to thrive. Allies and partners can provide the needed help in different ways, from flexibility in payment and reporting deadlines, through mediation grants, to core support.
Civil society will be facing a significant challenge throughout 2020, requiring a renewed recruitment to the shared values of justice, equality and welfare of individuals, groups and communities which stand at the base of the causes civil society and philanthropy strive to advance. A great investment of people and resources will be needed in order to keep a vibrant and dynamic civil society thriving in Israel throughout this time of uncertainty.