Bill Restricting Political Activities of NGOs During Elections Clears First Knesset Hurdle

Netanyahu proposed the initial version following an extensive PR campaign during the last election by a U.S.-funded organization that sought to replace him as premier.

Olivier Fitoussi

A bill that aims to significantly restrict the political activities of groups during election campaigns passed its first hurdle in the Knesset on Monday.

The bill passed with a 37-26 vote. The stated aim of the proposed law is to make it more difficult for the wealthy to invest large sums of money to get around election-funding laws and influence the outcome of a Knesset election.

The bill exempts daily freebie Israel Hayom and other news outlets, and states that it won't apply for "publication in a media outlet that was established at least three months before election season, if the outlet wasn’t paid for it."    

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed the initial version, following an extensive PR campaign during the last election by V15, a U.S.-funded organization that sought to replace him as premier.

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) criticized the bill, calling it an attempt to “change the rules of the game. If the right wing is so sure of its victory and that the public will always vote for it, it’s not clear to me why it is obsessed with changing every law and destroying every nongovernmental organization.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weekly cabinet meeting, February 19, 2017.
POOL/REUTERS

“This is a good law,” MK Yael German (Yesh Atid) said during the bill’s first reading in the Knesset. “If the law hadn’t come from Yoav Kish,” she said, referring to the right-wing Likud lawmaker who submitted the bill, “it is almost certain we all would have voted for it.”

German said, “What is done before the election is the basis for corruption after the election,” adding that “donors cast their bread on the water” and expect something in return.

According to the present version of the bill – which is more moderate than the version originally submitted – reporting of contributions of less than 100,000 shekels ($26,975) is not required. At the next level, contributions of between 100,000 shekels to 400,000 shekels will have to be reported to the state comptroller.

Organizations will be allowed to solicit contributions of only 11,000 shekels from a single donor or members of that donor’s immediate family during the election campaign, or 22,000 shekels between election campaigns. An organization with contributions at this level that breaks the new law will not be liable for criminal prosecution.

At the third level are groups donating more than 400,000 shekels. Such groups will have to appoint an accountant to supervise and report fundraising. If a group that contributes more than 500,000 shekels breaks the law, it will be liable for criminal prosecution on charges of fraud.

The new version of the bill calls for restrictions on groups that carry out any of the following four actions during elections when the cost of the actions exceeds 100,000 shekels: creating a database of voters and their political opinions; transporting voters to polling stations according to their political opinions; direct approaches to voters with certain opinions in the three months before the election in order to influence their choice; and methodical publicity during an election campaign intended to influence people to vote for or against a particular Knesset list.