Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has freed his Likud Party colleagues to vote their consciences on two proposals to set up Knesset investigative committees examining the activities and funding sources of certain left-wing Israeli organizations. The withdrawal of Likud support for the bills has all but ended their chances of being passed.

The idea for one of the probes had been promoted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu Party. That bill proposed examining the role of non-governmental organizations in delegitimizing the Israel Defense Forces and would probe their funding sources.

The other bill had been proposed by Likud MK Danny Danon and would have looked into the role of foreign governments in funding these groups and buying land in Israel.

Critics of the probes called them anti-democratic.

Another bill requiring NGOs to report some foreign funding sources passed the Knesset yesterday. [See page 2 for full story]

The proposals to establish the committees had been due to come to a vote early next week, but yesterday at a stormy Likud faction that saw strident opposition to the proposals, Netanyahu agreed that Likud Knesset members could vote their consciences on the proposals.

Yisrael Beiteinu then immediately asked for the vote to be postponed, when Lieberman saw that he would have difficulty mustering a majority without solid Likud support.

It now appears the vote on the matter will be shelved.

Lieberman, whose relationship with Netanyahu has lately been beset by battles over diplomatic postings, refrained from commenting on the issue publicly yesterday, but senior Yisrael Beiteinu officials expressed outrage that Netanyahu had effectively scuttled the measure.

They said a response would come at a time of Lieberman's choosing.

The Yisrael Beiteinu faction was particularly upset that Likud had backtracked on the proposals. Two weeks ago members of Likud's Knesset faction had resolved to support both investigative committees, but only 13 Likud MKs were present for that vote.

Seven voted in favor and six, including Netanyahu, voted against. Four Likud MKs then asked to be free to vote against the bill in the plenum, including Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and ministers Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan and Benny Begin. Faction chairman Zeev Elkin agreed.

At a faction meeting yesterday, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar voiced the opinion that a uniform policy on the vote had to apply to the entire Likud faction. Either every Likud MK should have the right to vote his or her conscience or party discipline should apply to all of them, he said. Sa'ar called the investigative committees one-sided and expressed reservations about the idea.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom then announced that he would be voting against setting up the committees and called for freedom for the MKs to vote as they each saw fit. He demanded that Elkin explain why an exception was made for just four MKs.

Other members also demanded a free vote, leading to Netanyahu's capitulation.

The development was seen as convenient for Netanyahu, who was thought to believe that the probes could be poisonous diplomatically, furthering claims to delegitimize Israel, without having any actual effect on the ground.

Kadima and Ehud Barak's Atzmaut faction welcomed the new Likud stance, though Kadima faction chairman Yohanan Plesner saw the move as involving more realpolitik than anything else.

"It's a shame the decision was taken because of considerations involving a political settling of accounts with [Lieberman] and not because it involved unnecessary [investigative] committees that harm Israeli democracy and Israel's foreign relations," he said.