Germany ‘concerned’ about political climate in Israel that led to NGO bill

Legislation is ‘one-sided,’ Berlin says; even head of Bundestag Israel friendship group slams it as ‘reminiscent of the Kremlin’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak at a press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, on February 16, 2016, after a joint cabinet meeting. (AFP /Odd Andersen)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak at a press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, on February 16, 2016, after a joint cabinet meeting. (AFP /Odd Andersen)

Germany is “concerned” over Israel’s newly passed NGO transparency law and the fraught domestic Israeli political climate in which the controversial legislation was debated.

The law, which passed late Monday by a Knesset vote of 57-48, obligates Israeli nonprofits that receive most of their funding from foreign governments — a group that includes almost exclusively left-wing organizations — to disclose that fact in their public advocacy and in their contacts with government officials.

The bill passed its first reading in February but was frozen for half a year due to intense international criticism.

“The Federal Government [of Germany] is concerned about the legislation’s one-sided focus on financial support from governmental donations. For private donors, which are very significant in Israel, there are no transparency regulations,” the German government stated last week in a written reply to a question posed by an MP, a copy of which was obtained by The Times of Israel.

“The Federal Government is also concerned about the domestic political climate in Israel in which this law came to being, and about the increasingly polarized debate about the work of nongovernmental organizations in Israel.”

The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel further said that it has followed the debate over the bill in the Knesset “very attentively and critically” and has made its position clear in high-level discussions with the Israeli government.

While the proposed law only directly concerns Israeli NGOs, German foundations operating in Israel and the West Bank would be indirectly affected since they often partner with local organizations, the government’s statement notes disapprovingly.

The question was posed to the government by MP Volker Beck, a member of the Green Party and the chairman of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group. In recent weeks, Beck — a well-known pro-Israel advocate — fought against planned anti-Israeli demonstrations in Berlin and has been urging the government to more stridently oppose Iran’s efforts to obtain materiel needed to advance its nuclear program.

German politician Volker Beck. (CC BY-SA Mathias Schindler/Wikipedia)
German politician Volker Beck. (CC BY-SA Mathias Schindler/Wikipedia)

“If the Knesset will indeed pass this law, Israel will have achieved nothing, but the reputation of the Jewish and democratic state will have been damaged for absolutely nothing,” Beck told The Times of Israel on Monday.

The final version of the law, which he expected to pass with a comfortable majority — the interview was held before its passage Monday night — was softened significantly from the original draft, Beck noted. “However, the approach remains wrong and somehow feels like it was inspired by the Kremlin.”

The comment appears to be a reference to Russian governmental efforts in recent years to crack down on NGOs that are critical of the government. Bills have especially targeted foreign NGOs working in Russia.

The NGO law has a lot to do with internal Israeli politics but “certainly nothing [to do] with transparency,” Beck said. “Otherwise, public money and private money from people and organizations would be put on equal terms. That would be real transparency.”

The controversial bill, proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) and MKs Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu) and Betzalel Smotrich (Jewish Home), has been roundly criticized by the Israeli opposition, domestic groups such as the Israel Democracy Institute, the US government, European MPs, and several American Jewish groups.

Proponents argue the law is necessary because many of the most prominent groups advocating on key issues in Israel’s domestic politics are effectively beholden to the foreign governments that provide most of their funding.

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