US ambassador underlines concern over Israel’s NGO bill

Shapiro urges justice minister to ‘protect free expression and peaceful dissent’; embassy rejects comparison to American law

US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, December 9, 2014. (Matty Stern/US Embassy)
US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, December 9, 2014. (Matty Stern/US Embassy)

US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked Monday and highlighted Washington’s concern over a bill she is shepherding through the Knesset that would require non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to declare funding from foreign countries.

The meeting was announced in a statement from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, while a second statement noted “the chilling effect on NGO activities” that the proposed legislation would have.

Almost all of the groups that will be affected by the bill identify with the political left, as those NGOs receive funding from foreign governments, whereas those on the political right are mainly funded by private donors, who would not be subject to scrutiny by the bill.

Ambassador Shapiro “sought more information” about the draft legislation from the justice minister, and “noted the US government’s concerns on the matter,” according to the embassy. He reiterated that “a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.”

On Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed that the United States had expressed concerns to the Netanyahu government about the measure, rejecting Shaked’s move to liken her bill to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, which deals with registering foreign interest lobbyists. On Monday, the US Embassy sought to explain how the two pieces of legislation differ.

“As a general matter, US law imposes no limits, restrictions, or transparency requirements on the receipt of foreign funding by NGOs operating in the United States, other than those generally applicable to all Americans,” the statement said.

“In contrast, the draft Israeli law would target NGOs simply because they are funded principally by foreign government entities. That is not how the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) works. FARA requires individuals or organizations to register as foreign agents only if they engage in certain specified activities at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity,” the statement added. “As a result, it does not create the chilling effect on NGO activities that we are concerned about in reviewing the draft Israeli NGO law.”

The bill has riled politicians and political activists in Israel and abroad.

“The cabinet decision to approve the twisted NGO bill is a bullet between the eyes for Israel’s standing in the world,” Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said last month. “Our enemies are giving a big thank you to the Israeli government, which has put us on the same level with the darkest countries in the world.”

American and Israeli left-wing groups have reportedly been planning an “ad hoc coalition” to attempt to block the bill from becoming law.

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