Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that he does not have the legal authority to collect information on left-wing organizations. Mendelblit added that the prime minister must get rid of any information already collected on civilian organizations, and may not make use of it.
The attorney general's statement comes in response to a letter sent by attorney Shahar Ben Meir on the topic and reports in Haaretz about Netanyahu's attempts to act against European funding for several left-wing groups, including the Freedom Protection Council, a consortium of civil society organizations, and the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research.
In August, Netanyahu said he had blocked European Union funding for the Council, and vowed that it was just the beginning: "We will continue to take firm action against organizations that act to delegitimize the State of Israel."
Following that report, Ben Meir wrote the attorney general that it seems the government is monitoring civilian organizations without any authority to do so. He added that the government doesn’t have the authority to use its power to stop funding for civil organizations either.
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"It seems that this behavior represents a pattern by the prime minister," Ben Meir wrote. "Monitoring and attempting to hurt an association's sources of funding because the prime minister thinks it 'smears the State of Israel' is a violation of the association's freedom of expression."
Anat Assif, a lawyer with the attorney general's office, replied to Ben Meir, saying that indeed the government does not have the legal authority to collect information on civilian associations, and that the attorney general had talked about it with the "relevant entities." She also said the attorney general would issue a written directive to that effect within days.
The Freedom Protection Council, which was founded last year by Ilam – the Arab Center for Media Freedom Development and Research – consists of some 20 Jewish and Arab NGOs, including B’Tselem, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Mossawa Center.
The groups have all banded together in order to provide a response to the issue of restrictions the government promotes on a span of civil rights and liberties.
Following Netanyahu's remarks, a spokeswoman for the EU stated that no final decisions have been made. The EU said that it alone will make the final decision and that the EU "remains committed to protecting the freedom of expression and organizing" and will continue to support civil society and democratic values in Israel and around the world.
Both the Council and Akevot have continued to operate despite Netanyahu's efforts to hamstring them.
In response to the attorney general's position, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) said Monday that "Israel is committed to protecting itself against organizations that act as foreign agents with foreign funding." Hotovely called Mendelblit's statement "absurd," saying the left-wing organizations "openly operate against Israel and against the IDF's moral mission."
Attorney Dan Yakir from the Association for Civil Liberties in Israel praised the attorney general, saying that Mendelblit "did well by putting a stop to the government's illegal actions, which are part of its delegitimization campaign against civil society and anyone who criticizes government policy."