Why does Europe fund left-wing Israeli groups?

Ayelet Shaked’s NGO bill seeks to curtail foreign entities intervening in Israel’s affairs; EU says it will damage country’s reputation as ‘an open and democratic society’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Right-wing activists protest at Jerusalem's Hebrew University against the Israeli group Breaking the Silence on December 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Right-wing activists protest at Jerusalem's Hebrew University against the Israeli group Breaking the Silence on December 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Foreign governments giving money to Israeli civil society groups is a “blatant intervention in internal Israeli affairs,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in November when she introduced a bill that would force certain non-governmental organizations to disclose the sources of their funding. Foreign entities financing another country’s NGOs, she argued, “infringes on the accepted norms and rules of relations between democratic countries.”

The so-called NGO Law or Transparency Law would require all Israeli groups that receive half or more of their budget from foreign governments — which is true for many left-wing but few right-wing groups — to disclose their foreign benefactors. Naturally, the bill, which passed its first hurdle last week and is expected to be signed into law, has drawn much criticism by NGOs affiliated with left-wing causes and opposition politicians.

The European Union, though it provides many Israeli NGOs with funding, has not publicly commented on the proposed legislation. But senior EU officials, in meetings with their Israeli interlocutors, left no doubt as to their strong opposition to the bill.

“We call on Israel to promote its active NGO sector and to refrain from actions which may complicate the space in which civil society organizations operate and which may curtail freedom of association and freedom of speech,” read a document with talking points handed to the EU’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg Anderson, before he met Shaked in November.

“We are deeply concerned about the draft bill published by the government. Enhancing transparency is legitimate. But this draft bill is discriminatory and explicitly intended to target certain NGOs critical of government policies. It will negatively impact on Israel’s image and credentials in Europe as an open and democratic society,” the document said.

The NGO ‘naming and shaming’ game

The list of talking points, which was first reported on Army Radion and a copy of which was obtained by The Times of Israel, accuses the bill’s sponsors of intentionally targeting NGOs critical of the government and the Israeli military, which raises “concerns about the atmosphere and space in which a pluralist civil society can operate in Israel.”

EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)

The EU sees in the proposed law an extension of a “worrying trend of naming and shaming certain NGOs, especially in the area of human rights, which could contribute to a general decline of the appreciation for human rights as a universal and fundamental value in public discourse.”

If the bill were to pass it could “severely and negatively impact” Israel’s reputation as an open and democratic society, the document states. “Harnessing NGO activity is a trend we see mainly in authoritarian regimes. We call on Israel to firmly remain in the family of democratic nations and not to follow this worrying trend.”

Those are very strong words, issued to Israeli officials weeks before the law even made it to the Knesset floor. Why, one might wonder, is the EU getting so upset about a law that does not curtail the activities of any groups, or even limit the amount of foreign funding they can receive — as some Israeli lawmakers have proposed — but merely requires full disclosure from groups that rely on foreign governments for their survival?

The answer lies in the union’s stated commitment to human rights and its belief in strengthening civil society in every country with which it has relations.

“The European Union sees human rights as universal and indivisible. It actively promotes and defends them both within its borders and in its relations with non-EU countries,” an official at the EU delegation in Tel Aviv told The Times of Israel this week. “In the case of Israel, respect for human rights is woven into EU-relations.”

The 2000 Association Agreement that anchors bilateral ties declares that relations “shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles.” The joint EU-Israel Action plan, the practical framework for diplomatic relations, states that the sides will “work together to promote the shared values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.”

The EU’s support for civil society organizations in Israel is “firmly based on the values we attach to the contribution of pluralist voices, including those with which we do not necessarily agree, to public discourse in democratic societies,” the EU ambassador’s leaked talking points state.

Breaking the EU funding myth

Critics often accuse the EU of giving money to groups they claim are hostile to the Israeli government or the army, such as Breaking the Silence, which publishes anonymous testimonies by former IDF soldiers regarding alleged human rights violations by the army in the Palestinian territories.

“We know that Breaking the Silence is funded heavily by the EU,” said Gerald Steinberg, the president of NGO Monitor, an Israeli watchdog group critical of the way Europeans allocate funds to Israel nonprofits. Breaking the Silence, he charged, is clearly associated with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The EU recently earmarked 236,000 euros (NIS 1 million) for a Breaking the Silence project entitled “Educating for Change: Human Rights Education in Israeli Society,” Steinberg said. But it is unclear how much of that money is really spent on educating young Israelis about human rights, since the group is very active abroad and hosts few events in Israel, he said.

Gerald Steinberg (Flash90)
Gerald Steinberg (Flash90)

Furthermore, the EU’s funding mechanism is too opaque, Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, complained. The EU puts a lot of money in Israeli civil society but it is unclear based on which criteria funds are allocated, he said.

“The EU has to be more transparent and open up the processes of its NGO funding to the Knesset and the Israeli public,” he added. “How are these decisions made? Who makes these decisions, and what is their objective? It’s entirely a black box.”

The EU rejects those arguments. The union does not fund NGOs per se but rather specific projects that are submitted following public calls for proposals and assessed in a competitive process, the EU official in Tel Aviv said. While funding is granted irrespective of a group’s political outlook, the EU does not support any projects supporting BDS, the official asserted.

“There is nothing secretive about our funding process. The guidelines for project applicants clearly state the aims and objectives of the programs and are open for all to see,” he said. “We do not dictate which projects will be accepted but only give headings under which applicants can submit projects.” Details on all accepted projects in Israel are posted on the website of the EU Delegation to Israel, while every grant the EU signs is posted on the union’s global Financial Transparency Database, the official argued.

“There is absolute transparency,” agreed Sharon Pardo, who chairs the Center for the Study Center of European Politics and Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and has himself applied for EU research grants. While the application process is very complicated, it is professional, fair and “more transparent than in any other national institution I’ve ever worked with,” he asserted.

‘As long as these are legal entities lawfully operating in Israel, anyone can apply. Rightists can apply, too’

Indeed, the process of obtaining funding from the EU for a certain project is so difficult that it might explain why so many left-wing groups from Israel benefit from the union’s generosity while right-wing NGOs usually get their funding from private donors, Pardo posited. The NGOs on the liberal spectrum of Israeli society are the ones that are aware of the EU grants and have the know-how to apply for them. More conservative groups, however, are either unaware of, uninterested in or simply unable to apply for European funding. “It’s an extremely complicated mission and you need real professionals to fill out such an application,” he said.

It is thus unfair to accuse the EU of picking sides in internal Israeli debates, since right-wing groups are allowed to compete for the same grants as left-wing groups, Pardo continued. “As long as these are legal entities lawfully operating in Israel, anyone can apply. Rightists can apply, too, but the fact is that they don’t apply.” Most Israeli organizations receiving EU funding are not dealing primarily with the Palestinian issue, he added.

Hundreds of millions of dollars

Israel is also not being singled out, the EU argues, rejecting an often-made accusation that it focuses disproportionate amounts of money on groups undermining the policy of Israel’s elected government.

“We are particularly proud of the numerous projects we have supported in recent years in the US to support the fight against the death penalty,” the EU official in Tel Aviv said. “This is hardly an uncontroversial issue in America, yet the US government does not criticize this as unwarranted interference in the affairs of a sovereign country, and, like Israel, an ally.”

However, according to NGO Monitor, the EU has funded only three projects in the US between 2012 and 2014, to the tune of 1.3 million euros (NIS 5.5 million). In comparison, during the same time frame the union supported 36 Israeli NGOs at a total of 11 million euros (NIS 46.6 million).

And that is just the EU; many individual European states are separately providing Israeli groups with handsome grants. Shaked argued this week that “hundreds of millions of dollars are being given to Israeli NGOs by countries seeking to interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked attends the weekly Jewish Home faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 21, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked attends the weekly Jewish Home faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 21, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Those huge sums of money, she argued, are “weakening Israel’s moral claim and presenting it as a country that is prima facie committing a breach of international law.” Therefore, she concluded, any criticism of the bill is “part of the same foolish attempt to besmirch Israel’s name.”

According to Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute, it is Shaked’s bill more than anything else that is giving Israel a bad reputation.

“Our best friends don’t accept this law, like for example the members of the Germany-Israel parliamentary friendship group. They look at other countries that pass such laws and see Syria, Russia and Egypt, and don’t understand why Israel wants to be in this kind of company.”

The EU fields an additional argument against claims that it is meddling in Israel’s internal affairs by funding NGOs fighting for human rights.

“Human rights, in general, and issues relating to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are not internal affairs,” the EU ambassador’s leaked talking points argue. “Defending and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms cannot be considered as unlawful interference, especially when such activities come from within Israel’s civil society itself.”

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