Nonprofit watchdog says NGO funding bills miss the point
A prominent critic of left-wing NGOs this week spoke out against proposed legislation that would curb foreign donations to Israeli human rights groups. Gerald Steinberg, the London-born president of watchdog group NGO Monitor, is opposed to European governments bankrolling Israeli left-wing groups, but maintains that the two bills proposed by Israeli lawmakers to curtail that are misguided.
"This legislation is not helpful, neither bill is constructive. They polarize and reinforce the view that human rights is only a left-wing issue and that if you are on the right you shouldn't be concerned about human rights," Steinberg told Anglo File.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the legislative process for the two bills, effectively killing them for the time being. Some NGO officials remain skeptical, though, suspecting they will be revived soon. Indeed, Yisrael Beitenu's Knesset faction said Tuesday it would continue pushing the law, even if the cabinet does not support it.
Steinberg supported the move to take the bills off the table, saying it would "help continue this dialogue in a calmer and more substantive manner."
Steinberg, who grew up in California, says that instead of outlawing foreign funding for NGOs, Israel should engage in an internal discussion and a debate with European countries about the influence foreign governments should have on another state's policies via donations to NGOs, he said.
One of the controversial bills, sponsored by Likud MK Ofir Akunis, would have barred political NGOs from accepting more than NIS 20,000 from foreign governments or international bodies such as the United Nations. The second bill, authored by Yisrael Beitenu MK Faina Kirshenbaum, would force all organizations not funded by the Israeli government to pay a 45-percent tax on all donations from foreign states.
Many Israeli nonprofits on the political left pay for much of their annual budgets with donations from European countries or the European Union itself. For example, Breaking the Silence, which publicizes Israeli soldiers' testimonies about human rights violations, last year received NIS 528,728 from the British Embassy.
So far, the organization has received NIS 106,178 this year from the embassy. The Spanish Foreign Ministry, however, raised its donations to Breaking the Silence in 2011 to NIS 800,292, according to the organization.
Most right-wing NGOs do not get any funding from foreign governments but rely on donations by wealthy Diaspora Jews and are often better off financially, said Steinberg.
He said he saw the freezing of the bills as a positive move, but added that the issue could come back as a private member's bill.
"This is clearly a domestic political issue," said Steinberg, who founded NGO Monitor 10 years ago to "promote accountability and advance a vigorous discussion" about nongovernmental groups. "This is going to continue to be a strong domestic political issue, what we're seeing is political maneuvering between different parties."
Since both external and internal reasons forced Netanyahu to freeze the legislation, Yisrael Beitenu can now attack him for that position and improve its own standing with the political right, according to Steinberg, who is also a professor in Bar-Ilan University's political studies department.
While Steinberg opposes the current bills, he is still leading the fight against foreign countries giving money to partisan NGOs. "When European governments systematically provide tens of millions of shekels every year to Israeli political groups in secret - there is no public hearing, we have no idea why [certain human rights groups] get money to campaign against Israeli government policy - that's fundamentally anti-democratic," he said. "It's not the role of foreign governments to determine the policies of another democratic government."
Rather than outlawing foreign donations, Steinberg would like to see more transparency. He praised a recent law that requires Israeli nonprofits to present quarterly reports about donations from foreign governments but criticized the government for not implementing it.
"This bill passed in February but the Justice Ministry has yet to issue the regulations, and that's a big failure," he said. "Why didn't the ministry issue regulations so that the NGOs can comply with the requirements of the bill?"
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry told Anglo File that their work on this issue "will be completed in the near future and the regulations will be sent to the Knesset Constitution Committee."