Rights Groups Remain Wary Despite PM's Decision to Shelve NGO Funding Bills

'Netanyahu believes in this law. He said he supports it. Therefore, he'll wait for the right moment to raise it anew and fast-track it,' says Peace Now secretary general.

Human rights groups voiced skepticism Sunday about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to freeze two bills that would limit their ability to obtain funding from foreign governments.

"Celebrations over the burial of this law are premature," Peace Now Secretary General Yariv Oppenheimer said. "Netanyahu believes in this law. He said he supports it. Therefore, he'll wait for the right moment to raise it anew and fast-track it."

Netanyahu decided over the weekend to indefinitely postpone a cabinet vote on appeals filed by four ministers against the Ministerial Committee for Legislation's decision to approve the bills. Since these appeals will determine whether the coalition supports or opposes the bills, as long as they are pending, the Knesset can't bring the bills to a vote.

The bills, which were slated to be merged after reaching the Knesset, are both responses to the information that Israeli nongovernmental organizations provided to the Goldstone Commission, a UN panel that accused Israel of war crimes in its war with Hamas in Gaza in late 2008. One, by Likud MKs Ofir Akunis and Tzipi Hotovely, would cap donations by foreign governments to "political" NGOs at NIS 20,000. The other, by MK Faina Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu ), would impose a 45 percent tax on foreign governments' donations to any NGO that is not funded by the state.

Hotovely agreed that the delay is not a funeral. "I'm confident that the prime minister isn't trying to bury discussion of the law by means of bureaucratic delays," she said. But others disagreed: MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union ), for instance, accused Netanyahu of "capitulating" to media pressure.

This is the second time the bills have been raised and then shelved without even making it to the Knesset. This summer, they were shelved at the request of Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, who convinced the cabinet that they would damage Israel's international image at a critical moment: the run-up to the Palestinians' bid for UN recognition as a state.

"Netanyahu keeps brandishing these bills in order to threaten the NGOs and sabotage their activity," an activist in one NGO charged yesterday.

Another argued that the bills had been raised purely to divert public and media attention away from other controversial bills, such as one to change the way the Bar Association's representatives on the Judicial Appointments Committee are chosen.

But even if the bills remain dormant, activists said, NGOs are liable to be deterred from giving information about Israel to international organizations for fear of reviving them. Oppenheimer said this chilling effect is already apparent. "These bills will have an impact, even now, on people's motivation to take part in extra-parliamentary activity, and also on potential donors," he said. "As long as these bills aren't completely off the table, they undermine freedom of expression."

MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) concurred. "The damage to democracy was already done," she said. "Even if this initiative doesn't pass, it caused an inflammatory, stormy public discourse and atmosphere."

Still, other NGOs, such as Shatil, Keshev and Sikkuy, publicly welcomed the decision. "We're happy to see that in response to public pressure by civil society, Netanyahu came to his senses and understood that without NGOs that work for equality, peace and human rights, we could declare the end of democracy in Israel," they said in a joint statement.