The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to grant government support on Sunday for a controversial bill that would rescind tax breaks on foreign governmental funding for Israeli NGOs whose directors or executives call for a boycott of Israel or Israeli citizens.
The bill, sponsored by right-wing MKs Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), has been criticized as creating a “chilling” effect on the free speech of individuals associated with the NGOs, and for unfairly conflating the speech of an organization’s directors with the views of the NGO itself.
Justie Minister Tzipi Livni, who chairs the committee, called the bill populist and undemocratic and said it would make it harder for Israel to defend soldiers in international tribunal.
“The State of Israel protects IDF soldiers in international tribunals, and the way the regime in Israel is perceived influences the decisions of those tribunals,” Livni said.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also branded the bill anti-democratic. “The next step will be the thought police,” he warned, urging Knesset members to shoot it down.
The bill would pull a tax break for some NGOs. Without it, foreign governmental donations to Israeli NGOs would be subject to a 45 percent tax rate.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein told the cabinet committee Sunday afternoon that he believed the bill to be unconstitutional, meaning that he would not be able to defend it against inevitable challenges in the High Court of Justice.
Weinstein argued that the proposal violates several of Israel’s Basic Laws and would not be defensible in court, Haaretz reported on Sunday. The bill would “harm freedom of expression,” and the passing of such legislation curtailing donations to NGOs and their free speech “is something done by a group of countries that it is doubtful if Israel wants to join,” Weinstein said.
In cases where individuals or NGOs engage in illegal speech, such as incitement to racism, there were existing criminal remedies that could be employed, Weinstein said. The present proposal, which would effectively sanction speech that was otherwise legal, is “disproportional” to the stated purpose of the bill. Weinstein is expected to recommend to the cabinet that it pursue stronger transparency for NGOs that receive foreign governmental funding.
The bill aims “to reduce the involvement of foreign political entities in Israel’s democracy,” which “causes real harm” and is a “serious intrusion [that attempts to change] the basic characteristics of the State of Israel and its sovereignty,” according to the preface to the bill. A similar 2011 proposal was stopped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The bill is now expected to head to the Knesset plenum for a preliminary reading, where it is expected to enjoy widespread support by the government majority — as dictated by coalition rules following approval by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.