Israel, U.S. Spar Over Human Rights Organization B'Tselem at UN Security Council

After Israeli envoy tells Security Council that UN must stop interfering in Israel's democratic process by funding the NGO, U.S. representative says it is 'vital that all governments protect and create an atmosphere that all voices can be heard.'

Israeli envoy Danny Danon at the UN Security Council, October 19, 2016.
Israeli envoy Danny Danon at the UN Security Council, October 19, 2016. UN PHOTO

The UN Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Middle East sparked an open disagreement between Israel and the United States, with all the other council members watching, over the activities of the B’Tselem organization.

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon assailed B’Tselem for demanding that the council take action against Israeli settlements and demanded that the UN stop funding the organization, arguing that doing do constitutes a direct interference in Israel’s internal affairs.

That prompted America’s alternate representative to the United Nations, David Pressman, to leap to B’Tselem’s defense.

“We thank these NGOs – B'Tselem and Americans for Peace Now – for sharing their technical expertise … as we recognize other NGOs around the world who shed light on difficult issues … it is vital that all governments protect and create an atmosphere that all voices can be heard,” he said.

Danon told a Security Council meeting on the Middle East that funding allocated by the United Nations' agencies to Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem constitutes "a direct interference in the democratic process in Israel," and called to halt it.

"Israel is a proud democracy and we cherish freedom of speech. But we don’t respect those who spread lies against Israel. Three UN agencies gave funding to B'Tselem … it was no coincidence that this organization was invited to give an expert opinion in the Security Council meeting last week.

"This is a direct interference in the democratic process in Israel by anti-Israeli elements here in the UN. I call to stop the funding for those extremist organizations by the UN," Danon said on Wednesday.

Danon's comments, which represent the formal position of the Israeli government, were made a few days after the U.S. administration came out in defense of B'Tselem, criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attack on the organization in light of its participation in a Security Council meeting on Israeli settlements last Friday.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told Haaretz on Monday that the American administration is "grateful" for the information the organization publishes on the situation in the West Bank, and particularly on the settlements, and emphasized that governments must protect free speech and create and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.

"I am not going to comment on everything that's been said [on B'Tselem and Peace Now]," Kirby said. "In general, we believe that a free and unfettered civil society is a critical component of democracy. As we have said many times, we believe it is important that governments protect the freedoms of expression, and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard. We are troubled by instances anywhere in the world where these principles are threatened."

The U.S. State Department spokesperson made his remarks following Netanyahu's statement on Saturday criticizing B'Tselem and Americans for Peace Now.

“What these organizations cannot achieve through democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve by international coercion,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook, adding that the groups were “recycling the false claim that ‘the occupation and settlements’” were the reason for the conflict.

“At the start of the new Knesset session, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will act to amend the National Service Law so that it will not be possible to do national service with the B’Tselem organization,” said a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, adding that Netanyahu had already raised the matter with the attorney general and the coalition head MK David Bitan. B’Tselem is one of many organizations and institutions in which young Israelis volunteer for national service as an alternative to serving in the army.