Police pat-downs for “bullies.” Jail-time for Shabbat-desecrating businesses. Crowdsourcing legislation. Muzzling the Breaking the Silence organization. These are but a few of the bills making waves in the Knesset, to varying degrees of controversy.
Some of them utterly far-fetched and designed to make headlines, others earning majority support, here are six of the most hotly contested pieces of legislation currently making their way through the Knesset, and where they stands.
The now-infamous NGO bill
It spurred an outcry from dovish Israeli and American groups, and Washington has called it “chilling,” but the Israeli government is not easily giving up on its now-notorious NGO Transparency Bill, set to be brought to the first of three Knesset readings on Monday.
Faced with fierce criticism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday proposed two amendments to the bill, which in its current form targets nongovernmental organizations that receive the majority of their funding from foreign governments — drop the requirement to wear special tags at the Knesset, and make all groups report foreign government donations, “from the first shekel.”
But Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has decided to bring the NGO bill, entirely unchanged, to its first Knesset vote on Monday, her spokesperson confirmed. Any revisions to the bill would be made in committee, she said, and the draft is identical to that approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in late December. The proposal already received the okay from the ministerial committee, thus requiring coalition support, and is expected to pass its first reading.
The bill would force groups that receive a majority of their funding from foreign governments to disclose that information in their formal reports and letters to public officials. The proposed legislation advanced by Shaked did not originally, however, include the stipulation that the NGO representatives wear special tags at the Knesset — that was part of a separate bill by Jewish Home’s Bezalel Smotrich that the government has agreed to fold into Shaked’s proposal in committee debates following Monday’s plenum vote on the bill.
Critics of the bill argue that it singles out left-wing groups, since right-wing organizations are primarily funded by private donors. The bill is an effort to silence these organizations, which are often critical of Israeli government policies, they charge. Proponents retort that the bill is merely a matter of improving transparency, and that while forcing the organizations to disclose their funding, it does not restrict their activities.
“The proposed rule in Israel on disclosure of NGOs is not anti-democratic. It’s transparency, which is the heart of democracy,” Netanyahu said last week. “I think when you hear of the use and abuse of NGOs here, that’s the least that we want, transparency, and I think that it’s much warranted. I think it’s just common sense.”
In defending the legislation, Shaked has likened it to the US’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (a comparison unequivocally dismissed by the US), while Netanyahu compared it to a House of Representatives resolution from January 2015 requiring those testifying in committee to disclose all foreign government grants. While FARA bears some notable differences, several American experts maintain there are some comparisons to be made to the US lobbying registry, despite official assertions to the contrary.
“The proposal has some of the features of FARA,” said US attorney Kenneth Gross, who specializes in American lobbying law, noting the requirement to label publicly distributed documents. “If a foreign group gives funds to a US entity for the purpose of funding political activities in the US even without specific direction, it is likely the FARA registration unit would require registration.”
As for the House resolution, he said: “The house rule is just that. A rule, not a law, that has limited application in the House only to those that testify. I suppose a similar limited requirement for testimony before the Knesset would not be outside the bounds of reasonableness.”
Professor Amos Jones, a legal expert on FARA and lecturer at Campbell University, said the NGO bill was “correctly” being compared to the US legislation.
“The sky will not fall as an NGO-disclosure bill is passed in some form in Israel. After all, as in the United States since 1938, most foreign influence will remain completely legal,” he said in an email.
Put your hands up
After a year that saw nearly 10 high-profile sexual harassment cases among the ranks of the Israel Police, as well as allegations and protests about unprovoked police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis, but also after four months of near-daily stabbing attacks, the cops may soon be given more freedom to frisk anyone acting in a “frightening” or “bullying” manner.
A controversial “stop and frisk” bill, currently being debated in the Knesset’s Constitution, Justice, and Law Committee, has been softened since its original version was approved in its first reading. But ahead of the second and third readings that would pass it into law, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which “welcomed” the changes, warned the bill would still foster ethnic and racial profiling and give police too much leeway, and asserted that “the first to suffer will be Ethiopians, Arabs and people of Middle Eastern appearance.”
Under the proposed revisions, police can frisk passersby to search for weapons if they have “a reasonable suspicion” they are “about to carry out an act of violence against another.” A “reasonable suspicion” is defined in the proposal as a person in a public place “acting in a bullying manner, including verbal violence, or threats, or acting in another intimidating or frightening manner.”
Moreover, in the event of a terror threat, the proposed changes would allow cops to designate an area as a closed zone for 21-day periods, thus permitting them to pat down those within the area, even those not raising suspicion in accordance with the aforementioned definition.
The committee has yet to vote on this formulation. The bill is being accelerated in the Knesset in light of the security situation.
Shabbat, or else
The wars over the Shabbat status quo are hardly new, but a recent bill targeting businesses open on the day of rest came from an unlikely source — a secular Likud lawmaker — and drew widespread condemnation.
Miki Zohar’s proposal — which would require all businesses to get permission from the Economy Ministry to open on Shabbat or face hefty fines or up to a year in jail, cutting out the existing bylaws — was also approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, thus requiring coalition MKs to back it.
The bill maintains that the economy minister must consult with the defense minister and local authorities prior to giving approval to businesses, after determining they provide “essential” services, or that their closure would impair Israel’s security or economy. Amid fierce backlash, including within the coalition by Kulanu MKs, Zohar shelved the bill indefinitely at the prime minister’s request.
Now, he’s seeking to lobby coalition support for the bill before reintroducing it into the Knesset. Speaking to The Times of Israel, Zohar insists the bill won’t shut down cafes and theaters, as has been presented, and said the media backlash has been “unfair.”
The law is rooted in “Jewish, social values,” he said, rather than religious ones. “It’s about giving every person the opportunity to rest one day a week.” On ice for now, in its current formulation, Zohar is adamant: “We aren’t willing to give up so easily on this law.”
Boycotting the boycotters
Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement seeking to visit the Jewish state, watch out: A bill is up in the Knesset to ban you from the country. The proposal, which passed its preliminary reading in November of last year, would bar anyone calling for a boycott of Israel, but allow the interior minister to make exceptions.
The proposal was introduced by former Jewish Home MK Yinon Magal, and supported by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on condition that the lawmakers wait on a government bill to be submitted to the Knesset on the matter. With Magal out of the Knesset amid allegations of sexual harassment, fellow party lawmaker Smotrich — who also endorsed the bill — is planning to advance it.
“From a check we did, the Interior Ministry is not advancing a bill on this subject, and therefore we are examining the possibility of pursuing the legislation without waiting,” a Jewish Home faction spokesman said.
Mimicking semi-direct democratic systems such as Switzerland, Likud MK Yoav Kisch and Zionist Union MK Hilik Bar submitted a bill this week to allow the public to submit legislation directly to the Knesset. The cross-aisle “121st MK bill,” supported by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, would require some 50,000 verified signatures on legislation submitted to the Knesset. The bills would be exempt from a preliminary reading, but would also prohibit bills on security, foreign affairs, or the state budget.
The Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that plays an active role in the Knesset, has opposed the bill, suggesting that it could turn Israel’s parliament into a “circus.” The Knesset already has a “surplus” of legislation, it argued. “The laws in the State of Israel should not be based on intuition or gut feelings. Legislating requires professionalism, preparation, and research. It is fair to assume that most citizens do not have the professional ability and economic training to legislate,” it said, in a post detailing its numerous misgivings.
And what sort of initiatives would the public advance? According to a popular Israeli petition website, the issues that have received the most signatures over several years include booting two Joint (Arab) List MKs from the Knesset in two separate petitions (108,000 signatures on one, 140,000 on another) as well as Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, a former felon (73,000). On social and financial matters, the most popular petition is against a government decision to tax people who waste water (464,000), followed by objections to having daylight saving time in early October (a decision since changed; the petition, from 2010, drew over 394,000 signatures). Extending maternity leave to a full year was also popular, with over 73,000 in favor.
Breaking and silencing Breaking the Silence
Lawmakers from four right-wing parties presented a bill to outlaw the Breaking the Silence group, which documents alleged abuses against Palestinians by Israel Defense Forces soldiers, according to Channel 10. The MKs — Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home; Yaakov Mergi of Shas; Merav Ben-Ari of Kulanu; and Oded Forer of Yisrael Beytenu — contend that the group, which has been the subject of a fierce months-long debate, is “subversive.”
“It isn’t human rights that stands behind their work,” Moalem-Refaeli told the TV station, “but the desire to encourage and advance the boycott against the State of Israel. Breaking the Silence is undermining the existence of the State of Israel.” She confirmed on January 13 that she had submitted the bill, more headline-grabbing than practical, to the chagrin of the NGO. “No bill, however populist, will silence us,” the left-wing group said in response.