Germany Won't Backtrack From Unprecedented Criticism of Israel's Treatment of Foreign-funded NGOs

German Foreign Ministry spokesperson says Germany grouped Israel together with China and Russia because all three recently passed laws against transferring foreign government funds to civil society organizations

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Benjamin Netanyahu speak at a press conference.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Benjamin Netanyahu speak at a press conference. AP

Despite Israeli protests, the German government has not retreated from its unprecedented criticism of Israel’s treatment of nonprofit associations and civil society organizations that receive foreign funding.

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said Wednesday at the German government’s weekly press conference in Berlin that Germany is concerned over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to pass a new and harsher law that would prohibit such organizations from receiving donations from foreign governments.

On Tuesday Haaretz reported that the German Foreign Ministry released a statement last week regarding a law recently passed in Hungary that bans foreign funding to NGOs and civil society groups. The statement said Germany believes that the negative attitude of the Israeli government to such groups is in line with that of the Russian and Chinese regimes. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem was taken aback by Schaefer’s remarks, protested and demanded clarifications.

On Wednesday, the German government provided public clarifications but did not backtrack on its criticism of the Israeli government’s treatment of NGOs and civil society organizations that receive foreign-government funding. When Schaefer was asked about the matter at the press conference, he said the reason Germany had included Israel together with China and Russia in this regard is that all three countries had recently passed laws against transferring foreign government funds to civil society organizations.

“In any country, the internal political situation or the motivation of the respective governments is certainly different. But, I believe, one can hold that there is something in common among these four countries, namely that the respective governments are very critical of such foreign financing of civil society activities in their countries. That is what I said – no more, but not less.

“Moreover, we are concerned about the statements in the past few weeks by the Israeli prime minister, who suggested that the Knesset-adopted rule on transparency of foreign funding of civil society organizations in Israel is not enough and that this is a reason to tighten the law,” Schaefer continued. “We have already voiced our critical position both in the public as well as with representatives of the Israeli government regarding the previous law. If we think this is necessary, then we would reserve the right to do so in the future.”

Schaefer said Germany’s criticism did not alter the fact that it considered itself a friend of Israel. “It is precisely because we have such a good and so close, friendly relationship with the Israeli government that it is possible for us to openly, honestly and, if necessary, publicly discuss differences of opinion between us,” he said.

During the press conference Schaefer read a statement condemning the decision by the government in Jerusalem to move ahead on construction of 3,000 new housing units in West Bank settlements, and the beginning of work on a new settlement for the evacuees from the illegal settlement of Amona. He said the German government was increasingly worried that Israel was moving in a direction that not only contravened international law, but also went against the two-state solution.

The German Foreign Ministry spokesman’s harsh criticism comes less than two months after a crisis arose between Berlin and Jerusalem during the visit by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to Israel with regard to civil society groups opposed to the Israeli occupation. During the visit, Netanyahu made an unprecedented decision to cancel his meeting with Gabriel because the latter met with representatives of the human rights groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.