Germany: Israel's Treatment of NGOs With Foreign Funding Is Like Russia and China

Israel asks for clarifications after unprecedented criticism by Germany in additional escalation of tensions between Jerusalem and Berlin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany. February 16, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany. February 16, 2016. Reuters

Germany’s Foreign Ministry made it clear several days ago that it believes Israel’s hostile treatment of nonprofit associations and civil society organizations that get foreign funding is identical to the policies of the Russian government and the Chinese regime.

This is an unprecedented criticism by the German government of the state of democracy in Israel and constitutes a further deterioration in the relations between the two countries.

The unusual declaration came only a few days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wanted to amend the current NGO Law so that civil society groups would be totally banned from accepting funds from foreign governments. 

Last Thursday, June 15, during a weekly press briefing, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer raised on his own initiative a law the recently passed in Hungary that bans foreign funding to NGOs and civil society groups. As he condemned the law, Schaefer made a passing reference to Israel.

“Hungary thus joins the ranks of countries like Russia, China and Israel, which obviously regard the funding of non-government organizations, of civil society efforts, by donors from abroad as a hostile or at least an unfriendly act,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem was taken aback by Schaefer’s remarks, and the Israeli Embassy in Berlin expressed its displeasure to the German Foreign Ministry and requested clarifications. Two senior German officials who asked not to be named said Schaefer’s declaration merely stated the fact that just as in China and Russia, Israel also has legislation against transferring foreign government funds to civil society organizations.

The sharp criticism from the German Foreign Ministry spokesman comes less than two months after the crisis that erupted during a visit to Israel by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel over his attitude toward groups that oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. During his visit, Netanyahu, in an unprecedented move, canceled his meeting with Gabriel because the latter met with members of B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. 

That diplomatic incident increased the tensions that already existed between Israel and Germany over the funding law that targeted left wing associations, as well as the so-called Regularization Law that allows the expropriation of private Palestinian land under certain circumstances. In February German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Netanyahu that she was cancelling the traditional bilateral summit that had been scheduled for May 10 in Jerusalem.

German diplomats said at the time that Merkel was furious about the expropriation law that the Knesset had passed a few days before. Germany is one of the countries most critical of the law that passed in July 2016, which requires all nonprofit groups who get foreign funding to disclose this information in their documents and literature – a law that affects primarily human rights groups aligned with the left. The reason Germany was so critical is that many Israeli NGOs receive funding from six foundations belonging to German political parties, whose activities are funded by German taxpayers. These party-affiliated foundations have offices in numerous countries, including Israel, and they promote values like democracy and human rights. 

Merkel, along with other German parliamentarians, including Volker Beck, head of the Israeli-German Friendship Association in the Bundestag, exerted heavy pressure on Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and other Israeli politicians, saying that if the NGO Law passed it would be a serious blow to relations with Germany.

On June 11, four days before Schaefer’s comments, Netanyahu said his government would formulate a new bill that would ban all Israeli nonprofits from accepting any foreign government funding at all. At a meeting of the coalition party heads, Netanyahu said the current law, which doesn’t restrict the donations but requires their disclosure, was too weak, and he assigned Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to draw up a new bill.

The Israeli Embassy in Berlin said, “Israel is a lively and free democracy and it has no limits on donations. Recently Israel required transparency, as is customary in other democratic countries. The embassy has contacted the German Foreign Ministry to get explanations.”