Netanyahu Shelves Cabinet Discussion on Bill to Limit Foreign Funding to NGOs

Sources in prime minister's office say Netanyahu wants to mull over the proposal after Attorney General said he could not defend the bill in High Court; Britain says bill would undermine Israel's democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided Wednesday to postpone the cabinet discussion on a bill aiming to restrict foreign funding to Israeli nongovernmental organizations, which was originally scheduled for next Sunday.

According to sources in Netanyahu's bureau, the prime minister decided to suspend the discussion following a warning by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who said in a letter to Netanyahu that he would not be prepared to defend the proposed legislation in the High Court of Justice should it pass the Knesset vote.

Benjamin Netanyahu - Kobi Gideon - 6.11.2011
Kobi Gideon / Flash 90

"The prime minister wants to think over the proposal in light of the letter he received and then decide how to move forward and handle this bill," an official in Netanyahu's bureau said Wednesday.

Over the weekend, Weinstein told Netanyahu in a letter that should the bill become a law, he will be unable to defend it against petitions that would be submitted to the High Court.

"The attorney general's policy is to refrain as much as possible from declaring laws unconstitutional, out of respect for the legislative work of the cabinet and Knesset," Weinstein wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this weekend explaining his unusual decision.

"But in light of the blatancy of the case before us, deviating from this policy is justified. What this means is that if these bills become law, I won't be able to defend them against the petitions that will be submitted to the High Court. That is what I intend to tell the Knesset, and afterward the Supreme Court."

The two bills in question were submitted by MKs Ofir Akunis (Likud) and Faina Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu ). Both are disproportionate and unconstitutional, Weinstein said.

"They deal a harsh blow to a long list of constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to equality," he wrote. "Instead of enabling open discussion in an efficient 'marketplace of ideas,' they try to suppress speech. They put Israel on a par with the handful of countries that have taken similar steps, and I doubt the State of Israel should be jealous of these regimes and act like them."

In international forums, he noted, Israeli representatives boast of the country's active civil society and human rights organizations, as these are essential elements of a democratic state. "It's true that these organizations' activities don't always accord with the Israeli government's positions. But they are an important voice that shouldn't be silenced."

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague rejected the proposals in Israel to limit foreign funding to NGOs, saying such a law would be a blow to U.K.-funded projects.

Britain is deeply concerned by proposals to pass legislation in the Israeli Knesset that would limit foreign funding of NGOs," said Hague.

"This would have a serious impact on projects funded from the U.K. and elsewhere to support universal rights and values and would be seen as undermining the democratic principles the Israeli state is founded on. While the passing of legislation is a matter for the Israeli Knesset, we strongly call upon all involved to reconsider this move and for the Israeli Government to make clear its own opposition to it."

The bills in question were both approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, but four ministers then appealed this decision to the full cabinet. Soon afterward, Netanyahu decided to freeze the bills, so the cabinet has yet to consider them. That means the Knesset also can't vote on them.

Last week, therefore, Akunis and Kirshenbaum decided to shelve those bills and submit a new, joint proposal. The new bill would ban foreign governments from donating any money to NGOs that support indicting Israeli soldiers and officials in international courts or encourage soldiers to refuse to serve. Other NGOs could accept donations from foreign governments, but the money would be taxed at a rate of 45 percent, unless either they are also funded by the Israeli government, or the finance minister and the Knesset Finance Committee exempt them.

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