After some six hours of raucous debate in the Knesset plenum, lawmakers passed into law late Monday the controversial “NGO bill.”
Formally titled the “Transparency Requirements for Parties Supported by Foreign State Entities Bill 5766-2016,” the new law passed its third and final vote Monday by 57-48.
The law dramatically ups transparency requirements for those Israeli NGOs, numbering fewer than two-dozen, that get most of their funding from foreign governments.
Critics say the law unfairly targets left-wing NGOs critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, and seeks to brand them as agents of foreign governments.
A Justice Ministry analysis of the bill presented to the Knesset Law Committee last month showed that nearly all the existing Israeli organizations that will be affected by the law’s new requirements are anti-occupation activist groups, including prominent organizations such as B’Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Ir Amim, Gisha and Breaking the Silence, or pro-Palestinian organizations like Zochrot, which calls for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants into Israel.
The law’s defenders argue that the mere fact that so many left-wing advocacy groups are funded primarily by foreign governments is an important public-awareness issue. Funding creates dependence, they say.
In its explanatory preface, the authors of the law say such groups “work in Israel in the name of foreign state entities.”
The preface explicitly accuses the relevant NGOs of foreign allegiances. The law seeks “to deal with the phenomenon of NGO’s who represent in Israel, in a non-transparent manner, the outside interests of foreign states, while pretending to be a domestic organization concerned with the interests of the Israeli public.”
Critics retort that the right-wing lawmakers who claim to want transparency for government-funded groups are unwilling to impose similar requirements for groups funded by foreign non-governmental sources. Many right-wing NGOs and advocacy groups draw a great deal of their funding from Jews in the US and elsewhere, as well as other private sources.
The final law is a merger of three bills proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and MKs Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu) and Betzalel Smotrich (Jewish Home).
The law requires that NGOs who meet the criterion of receiving more than half their income from foreign governments report this fact each year to the NGO Registrar in the Justice Ministry, which will publish a list of said NGOs.
NGOs that are on the list must note this fact on their websites for the rest of the year. They must also note this fact on any publications related to the NGO’s advocacy that are readily available to the public, as well as in their communications with public servants and elected officials.
They are also required to inform the chair of a Knesset committee that they are on the list whenever they appear before said committee.
“Some of these rules are similar in their essence to those that are currently applied to lobbyists in the Knesset, whose status is regulated under the Knesset Law,” the authors write in the preface to the law. Other restrictions, they acknowledge, “are unique to this special phenomenon.”
Coalition leaders applied discipline rules to the law, making it all but mandatory for coalition lawmakers to vote in favor.
The result was that most of the speakers who addressed the law in some six hours of Knesset debate Monday were opposition MKs who vehemently opposed it.
The law “symbolizes the budding fascism that is rising and flourishing in Israeli society,” charged opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union). It made a “mockery” of the “right to organize, which is a sacred founding principle of a democratic society.”
The law reflected the government’s “nakedness” when it came to dealing with key challenges in Israeli society. Some of the groups that will be affected, he noted, “advance noble goals of women’s equality, equality for the gay community, for minorities, for the weak, the needy, the destitute, the poor.” Many organizations turn to foreign governments “because this government has failed” to advance those issues.
The law is “an attempt to avoid the real debate over the character of the country and your failures,” he charged.
Arab Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh told the bill’s proponents that the list mandated by the new law was “a badge of honor, a group of courageous nonprofits and organizations that are only strengthened by your campaign of delegitimization.
“You chose to persecute two kinds of organizations: those working for equality and those battling against the occupation. With that, you’ve clearly marked your enemies — peace and equality,” Odeh said.
All the NGOs on the new list who are working for Arab equality in Israeli society have a combined budget “that’s roughly equal to one settler group called Elad,” he charged. “But unlike with those organizations whose donors will be publicized [through the new law] directly on their website, with Elad the money comes from anonymous sources in the Seychelles, as befits the grand tradition of transparency” on the Israeli right.
Zionist Union no. 2 MK Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister who has proposed her own transparency bill, called the right’s arguments for the new law “dishonest.”
“If you really wanted transparency, you’d have adopted my bill, which requires that everyone, but everyone, report on the sources of their income. This is nothing more than a campaign to divide Israeli society, one that reached its apotheosis already in the last elections,” she charged.
Shaked took to the Knesset podium to defend the government’s position.
“Imagine that Israel were to fund extra-parliamentary organizations in Britain that supported Brexit,” she said, “that we were interfering in the domestic affairs of Britain. What would happen then? Our ambassador would be called in immediately for a dressing-down, because Britain has its national dignity intact.”
She added: “Until now, we accepted [such foreign intervention] with bowed heads. Our heads are bowed no longer. This law is about nothing more than transparency.”
She urged opposition lawmakers not to take their case to the High Court of Justice. “Remember that you fought over this bill with parliamentary tools. Your battle must be fought here [in the Knesset]. That’s how you fight in a healthy democracy. You don’t fail here and then run to the High Court.”
Knesset Law Committee Chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Jewish Home) also took to the podium to defend the law, saying that a donor government “doesn’t always know exactly which organization is receiving their money, and if it knew, it’s possible it would not donate to some of the organizations, because it would not want to be involved in some of the issues that certain groups deal with.”