Israel employs diplomacy in bid to curb human rights groups

With legislative attempts often blocked, Foreign Ministry tries to go to the source in ongoing effort to prevent foreign funding of NGOs

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely meets with Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek in Jerusalem on June 8, 2015. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely meets with Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek in Jerusalem on June 8, 2015. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely unveiled last week the latest attempt in an ongoing right-wing struggle to prevent foreign funding of Israeli human rights organizations.

In the past, right-wing politicians — mainly from the Yisrael Beytenu, Likud and Jewish Home parties — attempted to stem the flow of government euros to Israeli non-governmental organizations through legislation. Hotovely, however, plans to accomplish the same feat through diplomacy.

Hotovely, a Likud legislator who functions as Israel’s de facto top diplomat in the absence of a dedicated foreign minister, announced on Tuesday that she had met with representatives of several EU countries to convince them to end their government’s funding of NGOs that “work to blacken Israel’s name in the world.”

If the individual governments and the European Union do not voluntary cease funding these groups, Hotovely threatened, Israel may fall back on legislation to outlaw the practice.

Israel already requires NGOs to declare if they receive funding from governments abroad. As a Knesset member, Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) sponsored the Foreign Government NGO Funding Transparency Bill, which passed in early 2011 and requires groups to state the source of foreign funding on advertisements and declare if they are forced to adopt political stances in exchange for the money.

The bill passed with support from both sides of the aisle and even with minimal argument from the NGOs themselves, which by and large were already open about their donors, Dr. Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute told The Times of Israel.

Hotovely’s proposal, however, will be far more contentious.

Keeping government euros out of NGOs’ hands

In a tweet, the 36-year-old Likud MK said she told foreign diplomats, “We need to put an end to the funding of organizations that delegitimize Israel under the guise of human rights NGOs.”

In his tenure as foreign minister, Yisrael Beytenu MK Avigdor Liberman went even further in his assessment of human rights groups such as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, calling them “terror organizations.”

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Liberman, whose party in 2011 attempted to form a government probe to investigate human rights groups, said at the time, “These are neither left-wing organizations nor human rights organizations; they are terrorist organizations — groups that abet terror and people who actively participate in abetting terror.”

The Yisrael Beytenu-proposed committee was quickly and soundly defeated in the Knesset, with some detractors at the time referring to it as “along the lines of Joseph McCarthy,” a reference to the infamous American senator who headed the House Un-American Activities Committee, which persecuted those citizens believed to be communist conspirators and sympathizers in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, MK Yinon Magal of Yisrael Beytenu continued his party’s campaign to restrict foreign funding with a proposal last month that would require any organization that receives more than $50,000 from a foreign government to pay a 37 percent tax on those donations and force those groups to clearly identify themselves as foreign organizations.

Under Magal’s proposal, “every official document, website, sign or publication” would have to identify them as foreign organizations, covering “no less than one-eighth of the page or area.”

MK Yinon Magal leaves a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
MK Yinon Magal leaves a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Similar proposals to halt foreign countries’ funding over the years have been struck down by the attorney general for being discriminatory against left-wing organizations.

For the most part, Fuchs explained, “right-wing organizations get money from individuals and left-wing groups are funded by countries.”

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, founder of the organization NGO Monitor and a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, sees the distinction between foreign and private funding as critical.

Foreign funding of these organizations, he said, is an infringement upon Israeli sovereignty.

“Governments are sovereign entities. Sovereignty is exclusive. You cannot have a situation where two countries exercise sovereignty,” Steinberg said. “Private individuals are governed in an entirely different way.”

He added, “The only comparison is that they both give money.”

Fuchs, on the other hand, does not see a meaningful difference between state and private funding. “I’m not convinced,” he said.

The only distinction between the two types of funding that Fuchs did recognize was that the motivations of the donor are more apparent when it comes from a government.

“A private individual,” he explained, “we know nothing about,” whereas the Western European governments donating to these groups are “friendly countries, like the UK,” he said.

Several countries around the world have what are known as “foreign agent” laws, which require organizations that receive funding from abroad to clearly identify themselves as operating under those auspices.

The United States has had such a law since the 1930s, though the extent to which it is enforced has waxed and waned over the decades.

Unlike Hotovely’s and other right-wing politicians’ proposals, however, this “foreign agent” status is also given to NGOs and lobbying groups that receive funding from individuals, and not just foreign governments.

Steinberg, who supports Hotovely’s effort, added that he would encourage a similar requirement for Israeli NGOs receiving funding from private individuals as well.

“If somebody wants to bring up the issue of private funding — funding from [George] Soros, funding from the Rockefeller brothers, funding from [Sheldon] Adelson — that’s also legitimate,” Steinberg said

But, he added, “those are not the same discussions” as the issue of funding from foreign governments.

The NGOs respond

The organizations that stand to be affected by Hotovely’s diplomatic pressure on European governments denounced her plan and the allegation that they seek to delegitimize Israel.

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

Hagai El-Ad, CEO of B’Tselem, said that the deputy foreign minister’s plan for NGOs and her recent decision to require foreign dignitaries to visit the Old City of Jerusalem “will not convince [these diplomats] to support the occupation and settlements.”

He added, “Hotovely does not have the measurement tool to determine who is ‘harmful’ and who is ‘harmless’ to the country.

“No matter what, B’Tselem will continue its work to expose human rights violations in the territories,” El-Ad said.

Shai Grunberg, spokesperson for the Gisha organization, which principally advocates for the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, told The Times of Israel, “Gisha is a human rights organization that operates alongside and with the proper authorities. Our activities are public and encourage transparency.”

Finally, she added, her organization’s work not only does not delegitimize Israel, but “will help give legitimacy to Israel in the community of nations.”

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