Netanyahu tweaks controversial NGO transparency bill
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Netanyahu tweaks controversial NGO transparency bill

PM says groups receiving foreign government funding won’t be required to wear tags in Knesset; but all donations must be disclosed

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 17, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 17, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday announced amendments to a controversial bill affecting NGOs, which he said would make the legislation more like existing US laws on foreign lobbying efforts.

Netanyahu said the so-called NGO Law — or Transparency Law — would no longer require all Israeli groups that receive at least half of their budget from foreign governments to wear prominent name tags while operating in the Knesset.

However, the tweaked bill would require all nonprofit organizations to account for all of its foreign funding, not only those receiving over 50 percent of its budgets from abroad as originally proposed.

At the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu noted that similar laws already exist in other Western counties, including the US, and said the measure was “the right thing for a democracy.”

Critics charged the legislation, sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, was an effort to silence left-wing groups that tend to receive the majority of their funding from abroad.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, right, and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Jerusalem, May 19, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, right, and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

“I don’t understand how a demand for greater transparency is anti-democratic,” Netanyahu said. “In a democracy, we need to know who is funding these organizations — from the right, the left, the top to the bottom. And government funding is certainly something worthy that the public should know about.

In response, Shaked said Netanyahu’s changes to her proposed legislation would be “taken into consideration favorably by the Justice Ministry.”

During his address at the Government Press Office’s annual New Year’s reception on Thursday, the prime minister compared the NGO bill to the House of Representatives Resolution Number Five passed last year.

He compared the US Congress requiring people testifying in front of the House of Representatives to disclose funding by foreign governments to Shaked’s bill.

“I think when you hear of the use and abuse of NGOs here, that’s the least that we want, its transparency, and I think that it’s much warranted. I think it’s just common sense,” he said.

Earlier this month, Shaked likened a different US law to her bill. In a January 7 op-ed in the daily newspaper Maariv, Shaked said the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law requiring foreign interest lobbyists to publicly disclose any foreign funding, was no different to her NGO bill.

The Obama administration strongly rejected the comparison, calling the two “different things altogether.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the FARA requires agents who lobby on behalf of foreign governments to register and report their activities, not local NGOs. Kirby also said that since the Israeli cabinet green-lighted the bill, US officials have expressed concerns about the dangers it could pose to a “free and functioning civil society.”

The American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League have also expressed concerns about the bill.

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