Knesset legal adviser strikes down cabinet plan to probe rights groups’ funding

Eyal Yinon says PM’s call for inquiry into foreign government funding for NGOs that critique the IDF is ‘politically motivated,’ cannot be handled by parliamentary committee

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, February 23, 2016.
 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, February 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset’s chief legal adviser threw cold water Wednesday on a cabinet decision to probe the funding Israeli NGOs receive from foreign governments, saying that the move was “politically motivated” and therefore unfit for treatment by a parliamentary inquiry committee.

“After examining the subject, I believe the issue cannot become a matter of a parliamentary inquiry, and efforts to limit the possibility of nonprofit organizations being funded by foreign countries for activities that express criticism of IDF soldiers should go through legislation,” Eyal Yinon wrote in a legal opinion presented to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he intends to investigate “organizations that operate against” Israeli soldiers. To do so, a meeting of coalition party chiefs agreed that they would establish a parliamentary committee to look into foreign government funding of such groups.

The IDF is the most moral army there is, Netanyahu declared to a gathering of Christine journalists, and vowed to put an end to the phenomenon of NGOs that harass IDF soldiers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of the Christian press at the Israel museum in Jerusalem on October 15, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu has in the past pressed foreign governments to end funding for left-wing NGOs and refused to meet with visiting dignitaries who meet with these groups. In particular, he has singled out Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects testimonies from former Israel Defense Forces soldiers about alleged human rights violations they witness in the Palestinian territories during their military service.

At the meeting of coalition heads, Netanyahu stressed the need to prevent the involvement of foreign governments in internal Israeli politics, giving the example of the ongoing US congressional committee investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

But Yinon said “the Knesset does not have the authority to establish a parliamentary inquiry committee in this matter, or any commission of inquiry whose practical purpose is the politically motivated ideological investigation of civilian organizations in Israel, whether right-wing or left-wing.”

Yinon said that such committees may be created to investigate issues of public concern but must have backing from both coalition and opposition lawmakers. Parliamentary committees in Israel mostly serve as a way to shed light on a pressing public issue and tend not to have much bite.

“A parliamentary investigation of civilian organizations on ideological grounds is contrary to basic government principles,” Yinon added, noting that a similar committee was blocked two years ago.

Breaking the Silence has been a frequent target of ire for right-wing parties in Israel.

Last year, Israeli lawmakers passed into law the controversial Transparency Bill, which dramatically increases transparency requirements for fewer than two dozen Israeli NGOs — Breaking the Silence among them — that get most of their funding from foreign governments.

A Justice Ministry analysis of the legislation showed that nearly all the existing Israeli organizations set to be affected by the law’s new requirements were groups that oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Beyond the efforts to investigate foreign funding, on Monday it was reported that the government is advancing a new bill that would allow it to shutter left-wing NGOs critical of the Israel Defense Forces.

While the July legislation dramatically ups transparency requirements for Israeli NGOs that get most of their funding from foreign governments, the new bill would go significantly further by allowing for the government to ban these groups.

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