Despite Global Criticism, Israel Approves Contentious 'NGO Law'

Critics say law, which mandates special requirements for NGOs that get most of their funding from foreign governments, disproportionately targets human rights organizations.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked addressing the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the NGO bill, July 12, 2016.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked addressing the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the NGO bill, July 12, 2016. Lior Mizrahi

Israel's Knesset voted in favor of the so-called "NGO bill" late Monday, after holding a marathon debate over whether to grant final approval to the contentious bill, despite massive criticism both at home and abroad.

The law, which passed its second and third readings 57-48, mandates special reporting requirements for nongovernmental organizations that get most of their funding from foreign governments, and, according to critics, disproportionately targets human rights organizations.

According to the Justice Ministry, there are only 27 organizations in Israel that get more than half their funding from foreign governments. Of these, 25 are human rights organizations identified with the left.

The law, sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked with full backing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, requires NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments to state as such in their reports to the registrar of nonprofit associations and in all their official publications. Such publications must also state that a list of the NGO’s donor countries appears on the registrar’s website. NGOs that violate these rules will be fined 29,200 shekels ($7,500).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the bill's passing into law, saying that it would "prevent an absurd situation in which foreign countries meddle in the internal affairs of Israel by funding NGOs and without the Israeli public's knowledge.

"Contrary to claims on the left, the bill's approval will increase transparency, will encourage the creation of a debate which truly reflects public opinion in Israel and will strengthen democracy."

The final version of the bill is considerably milder than the original, due to changes introduced by the Knesset Constitution Committee. For instance, the committee decided that the law won’t apply retroactively to donations made this year, but only to donations made as of January 1, 2017.

Moreover, the first report to the registrar of nonprofits will have to be made only eighteen months thereafter. The registrar will then have to publish a list of these organizations and the source of their donations on its website.

The committee killed a provision that would have required representatives of the NGOs in question to wear special name tags while attending meetings in the Knesset or government ministries. It also killed a provision requiring them to state their donor countries at the start of such meetings, but they will still have to provide this information when they register to attend the meetings. They will also have to respond if an MK questions them about their foreign donors.

The entirety of Monday’s plenary session was devoted to the bill. The debate began in the late afternoon and lasted over six hours, with the final vote taking place late Monday night. One after the other, opposition members accused the government of persecuting human rights groups and of trying to silence legitimate criticism of its conduct. MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) warned of the international repercussions Israel will suffer as a result of the bill, which she said "shows us to be worse than any NGO that is forced to say that it's funded by foreign governments."

Shaked, the last to address the plenum after the lengthy discussion, read out the funds transferred by foreign countries to several leftist NGOs. "Imagine if Israel had funded British organizations and encouraged them to back the exit from the EU," Shaked said. "Britain has national honor. It would not have allowed Israel to meddle in its internal affairs."

“Human rights organizations are completely transparent,” argued MK Dov Khenin (Joint List), one of the bill’s most vocal opponents. “All their contributions are reported, and therefore, there’s no real reason for the government’s NGO bill except to divert the discussion and incite the public.”

“Where is transparency really needed? In extreme right-wing organizations,” he added, noting that these organizations receive millions of shekels from private overseas donors, “but there, the government has chosen to impose secrecy and obscure the money trail.”

Many European parliamentarians have voiced grave concern about the bill and warned that it could undermine cooperation between Israel and Europe.