Cabinet moves to force NGOs to declare foreign government funding

But coalition faces uphill battle to pass bill that would also require representatives of left-wing groups to wear ID tags in Knesset

Lee Gancman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party seen at a party meeting in the Knesset, October 12, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party seen at a party meeting in the Knesset, October 12, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation unanimously approved a cabinet-sponsored bill Sunday requiring non-governmental organizations to declare funding from foreign countries and to note that fact on all official documents to civil servants.

Representatives of such NGOs will also be required to wear a identification badge whenever they attend sessions in the Knesset to reflect their group’s foreign funding. The bill would have NGO representatives wear a tag similar to those worn by lobbyists — or face a NIS 29,000 ($7,500) fine.

Now that the legislation has passed the ministerial committee, it will be sent to the Knesset for a preliminary vote. The upcoming vote is expected to be a tough one, however, as the ruling coalition has only a two-seat majority in the Knesset and some MKs have already declared that they will not support it in its current form.

Kulanu party MK Michael Oren declared his opposition to the bill Sunday, saying in a statement that “as someone who has worked all his life to improve the foreign relations of the State of Israel, my conscience does not allow me to vote for the NGO bill as it is formulated today. As a member of the Knesset Constitution, [Law and Justice] Committee, I will exert all my parliamentary powers to have it changed.”

The NGO bill has also faced stiff criticism from the European Union and individual European governments. Army Radio reported Sunday that EU ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen attacked the bill in a meeting with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked several weeks ago, saying that it is “explicitly intended to harm organizations critical of government policy. It will have a negative impact on the image of Israel and its standing in Europe as an open and democratic society.”

Lars Faaborg-Anderson, the EU ambassador to Israel, addresses the media on November 11, 2015 after the EU adopted guidelines to label products from the West Bank. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Lars Faaborg-Anderson, the EU ambassador to Israel, addresses the media on November 11, 2015 after the EU adopted guidelines to label products from the West Bank. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Similar sentiments were expressed recently by the German government, according to a Der Spiegel report published Saturday.

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 while those on the political right are mainly funded by private donors, who are not subject to scrutiny by the bill. The bill’s proponents contend that the funding of NGOs by mainly European governments amounts to interference in Israeli domestic matters and pushes foreign interests in the guise of human rights advocacy.

“The blatant interference of foreign governments in internal matters of the State of Israel with money is an unprecedented, widespread phenomenon that violates all rules and norms in relations between democratic countries. Financial support by foreign countries to NGOs acting in the internal Israeli sphere destabilizes the sovereignty of the State of Israel and calls into question the authority of the government that was elected by the public,” said Shaked, one of the main proponents of the bill.

As an example, she said that Israelis “all saw how the report by the UN’s commission of inquiry on war crimes during Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s name for last summer’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, “was based on testimony by Israeli non-governmental organizations such as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and Adalah.”

B’Tselem and Adalah are two NGOs dedicated to safeguarding Palestinians’ human rights; Breaking the Silence is an organization that collects testimony of alleged abuses from IDF soldiers.

Earlier in December, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon banned Breaking the Silence from all events involving soldiers, saying “it became clear that this is an organization operating with malicious motives” and primarily concerned with vilifying the IDF abroad.

The watchdog NGO Monitor, which tracks left-wing NGOs in Israel, said: “The real problem is in Europe, with irresponsible funding practices, not in Israel.”

“When European governments try to short-circuit Israeli democracy, they should not be surprised when there is pushback,” the group added in a statement, stopping short of throwing its support behind the bill.

Before it was adopted by the cabinet on November 1, the bill was sponsored as private legislation by Shaked’s colleague in the Jewish Home party, MK Bezalel Smotrich.

NGOs likely to be affected by the bill have been vocal in their criticism.

“The government is trying to conceal the fact of occupation, and is blaming those who oppose it — human rights organizations — for the international criticism which it creates.The world is starting to give up on Israel but do not, and will not, give up, even if the right enacts more despicable laws,” said B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad.

B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad (screen capture: YouTube)
B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad (screen capture: YouTube)

In early November, B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli told the media, “Today, [even] without such bills, B’Tselem publishes its list of donors with great pride and will continue to act fearlessly in exposing the reality of life in the territories.”

According to B’Tselem’s website, sources of foreign funding include the UN and EU, as well as the governments of France and Norway.

“If the justice minister and prime minister are so afraid of foreign interference in Israeli politics, they should first give back the millions they received for their campaigns from foreign tycoons, which were in fact the large majority of contributions received by the heads of the Likud and Jewish Home parties,” Michaeli added, alluding to international casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has said the bill aims “to mark political groups that voice other opinions and criticize the government’s policies. Surely the justice minister knows that registered NGOs, including Adalah, lawfully submit financial reports to the government on a regular basis and this data can even be found on the NGO’s website.”

Adalah said that funding from foreign sources for human rights groups is “acceptable and even necessary in regimes where a serious problem of human rights violations exists.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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