It started with a much-disparaged bill by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, under which nongovernmental organizations who receive more than half their funding from foreign governments — namely, left-wing human rights organizations — would be required to note such information in all of their official reports and wear a special tag singling them out at the Knesset.
But the heated transparency battle over foreign funding of NGOs and human rights groups is far from over.
Hitting back on Monday, Peace Now published a report accusing nine right-wing NGOs of failing to publicly disclose the source of some 95 percent of their funding, amounting to some NIS 567 million ($147 million) overall between 2006-2013, inclusively.
The report also maintained that some NIS 100 million ($25 million) in tax funds were transferred from local councils to some of these right-wing groups over the period. The “tremendous, surprising lack of transparency,” as described by the report, did not appear to be unlawful.
The report was disputed by several of the NGOs in question, which maintained they had reported their finances in compliance with Israeli law. The right-wing Im Tirtzu said it is “fully transparent,” and has handed over all the required documentation to the relevant parties. (The Peace Now report labeled its finances as 12-percent “fully transparent,” and 88% “allegedly transparent.”) NGO Monitor said it is “a non-ideological research institute, receives all funding from private — not government — donors, is fully transparent, and fully complies with all relevant Israeli regulations.” (The report said some 4.5% of its funding was “fully transparent,” and 72.5% “allegedly transparent.”)
The Yesha Council settlement umbrella group was accused of concealing 99.85% of its donations. In response, the group slammed the “ridiculous” report, which is “full of contradictions, doubts, and mistakes.”
“More seriously, it does not report the true facts, and presents false data,” it said, adding that Yesha Council has fully complied with the law.
“‘Peace Now,’ the left-wing organization that is funded by foreign states and organizations that want to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel, have produced another false report, which is also sponsored by those foreign sources. The heads of ‘Peace Now’ would do well if they would serve as an example to the left-wing NGOs in Israel and promptly reveal their sources of funding, just as Yesha Council has done for years,” it said.
The Peace Now report was based on the Israeli law under which all donations to NGOs over NIS 20,000 ($5,100) must be reported to a special committee, and which, in turn, is meant to be accessible to the public, it said. With discrepancies of millions of shekels, the report concluded that the organizations had failed to report some significant donations. It also distinguished between full and alleged transparency, with the latter noting the name of the fund, but not the specific donor — putting down the name of the donor, it noted, is not required under Israeli or American law.
The report also noted that the committee rarely investigates the gaps in the funding, assuming that all funds that go unreported were granted to the NGO in donations that amounted to less than NIS 20,000 ($5,100).
Six out of the nine NGOs received some NIS 100 million ($25 million) in tax funds from the Israeli government over this period, it said. “Israeli law allows these organizations not to disclose the name of the bodies that transferred the partnership funds, a situation that means the Israeli public has no way of knowing who is transferring its tax money to this organization or any other,” it said.
In response to the report, Professor Gerald Steinberg, the president of NGO Monitor, welcomed “Peace Now’s very belated agreement that full transparency is necessary for all foreign funding of political NGOs, regardless of ideology.
“After years of complaining that transparency legislation and research are ‘McCarthyite’ and ‘fascist,’ political NGOs affiliated with the New Israel Fund, including Peace Now, have recognized the importance of funding transparency and accountability for what are ostensibly non-government organizations, but receive much of their money from governments,” Steinberg said in a statement.
State donations vs. private donations
At the heart of the foreign-funding transparency debate is the relevance of distinguishing between donations from foreign governments and those from private donors. Proponents of Shaked’s bill have argued that the delineation is significant and that the foreign-funded groups scrutinizing Israeli policy violates its sovereignty, while some of the left-wing groups have attempted to expand the debate to transparency in general, arguing that the legal standards of scrutiny should be equal for all.
“While the law today requires every organization to publicize each quarter the donations [it has received] that come from the budgets of foreign states, receiving a donation from the budget of the State of Israel, at the expense of the Israel tax-payer, does not require publication, and can remain hidden from the public,” the Peace Now report said.
According to figures by Peace Now, in 2012, the left-wing organization received over NIS 1 million ($259,000) from the Norwegian Embassy, some NIS 500,000 ($129,000) from the Belgian Foreign Ministry, over NIS 350,000 ($90,000) from the British Foreign Office, some NIS 224,000 ($58,000) from the Swiss Foreign Ministry, and NIS 136,000 ($35,000) from the Dutch Embassy.
By contrast, NGO Monitor maintained state funding is “entirely different” than private funding, in part because foreign governments are not transparent.
“States exercise sovereign power on an exclusive basis, and state interference or manipulation of civil society organizations in other states violates that sovereignty. In addition, while private individuals and funds distribute their money as an expression of free choice, governments do not consult their citizens before deciding on grants to selected foreign NGOs,” it said.
“Another essential difference is that many European governments, including those giving Peace Now almost half of its budget, fail to practice transparency on these issues. They reject Freedom of Information requests, their reporting is years late or non-existent in some cases, and the decision-making processes remain highly guarded secrets. In contrast, private donors generally report in detail to tax authorities in order to receive tax deductions.”