Are You a Foreign Agent? Israel's 10 Most Unwanted Laws

Pending bills: Declaring leftist NGOs Foreign Agents, dropping Arabic as an official language, annexing most of the West Bank ... maybe it's time to expand the list to 20.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa'ar at the Knesset, Jan. 20, 2014.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa'ar at the Knesset, Jan. 20, 2014.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom GPO
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Who hasn't dreamed of being a secret agent, suave and unsuspected in the service of foreign handlers?

Now, in something of a redefinition of the term "secret agent," it turns out that you could be one, and not even know it yourself. That is, if hard-right lawmakers Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Coalition chair Yariv Levin (Likud) get their way.

According to their proposed law, Israeli individuals and human rights groups or other nonprofit organizations that receive funding from foreign countries will be required to explicitly state, beside their logo on official documents, that they serve as "foreign agents."

The bill, directed solely at left-leaning groups, is one of the newest entries on the list of Israeli democracy's 10 Most Unwanted Laws.

The proposal further states that the recipients will lose their tax-exempt status, and will be required to submit regular reports for scrutiny by Israeli authorities. Any donations they do receive will be taxed by the state.

Lost on the bill's authors is a definite irony. While it is intended to apply only to – and hound and hamper the activities of – left-leaning and pro-peace NGOs and individuals, the wording could also be seen as aptly describing the many well-funded NGOs of the settlement movement and the wellsprings of their funding, which often comes from foreign sources – for example, American Jewish physician and bingo magnate Irving Moskowitz.

As of today, these organizations have no obligation of proper disclosure," the bill's preamble remarks, adding that their activities and the foreign donors' interests "do not accord with Israeli interests.

The bill's authors go on to state that these organizations operate with a lack of transparency regarding the objectives of their activity and under the cover of organizations working to promote Israeli interests. They are presently entitled to a tax exemption, although the Israeli public does not benefit from their activity.

Only this year has a serious opposition effort been underway to penetrate the opacity of funding to settlements. But it has been tough going. With the current help of Ilatov's and Shaked's parties, such funding sources as the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Division are securely shielded from public review.

The Foreign Agent bill comes exactly two years after the Knesset passed an amendment which, among other measures, granted a tax exemption to Israelis who donate to West Bank settlements and the NGOs which support them.

The law was passed after Israeli officials had promised the international community that Israel would not provide special incentives for West Bank settlement activity.

The 2012 amendment was coauthored by then-coalition chair Zeev Elkin (Likud), now head of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Elkin is not one to rest on his laurels. Elkin's current effort, a bill called the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, is a strong candidate for the position of Democracy's Enemy Number One.

If passed, the law would constitute a watershed in the hard-right's campaign to enact antidemocratic legislation, because it would grant primacy to the Jewish character of the state over its democratic character.

Underscoring an effective downgrading of the status of Arab and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel, the bill would also drop Arabic as an official language of Israel alongside Hebrew, explicitly define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and allocate resources to ingather the exiles of Israel and [further] Jewish settlement within it.

The bill makes no promises as to construction for non-Jews.

Potentially most significant under Elkin's measure, Jewish law would serve to inspire future legislation and underpin court rulings.

The bill is so stridently weighted in favor of Jewish Israelis, that the heads of two parties in Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition – Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) – have indicated they will vote against it. Fearing defeat of the measure, Shaked and Levin have come up with an alternative version, excising some of its more incendiary provisions.

What else is expected to take pride of place on the legislative Most Unwanted List?

– Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) said last week that to mark Jerusalem Day on Wednesday, he will submit a bill to unilaterally expand the borders of the city to form a Greater Jerusalem, including the more than 150,000 Israeli-Jewish residents of the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc, Givat Ze'ev, Beitar Illit, and the settlement-city of Maaleh Adumim – all of them located beyond the pre-1967 Green Line border.

– On Monday, in an effort led by Levin and extreme-right MK Orit Strock (Habayit Hayehudi), no fewer than 10 separate bills were submitted for Knesset consideration, each of them specifying unilateral Israeli annexation of a different sector of the West Bank.

The total area covered would represent most of Area C, which contains some 60 percent of all the land of the West Bank and is under full Israeli control. Nearly all West bank settlers live in Area C.

Ten Most Unwanted? Maybe it's time to expand the list to 20.

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