Moderated Version of Contentious NGO Bill Passes Key Legislative Hurdle

Opponents say that even pared-back version of controversial legislation will tarnish Israel’s image.

Emil Salman

The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday approved a softened version of the controversial “NGO transparency bill” for final voting into law. Opposition members argue that the pared-back version is an empty shell that does nothing to increase the transparency of donations to nonprofit organizations, and will stain Israel’s image.

The legislation would require nongovernmental organizations that get more than half their funding from foreign governments or governmental agencies to make the public servants and elected officials they meet with aware of this and also report it in all their written publicity material. However, the final version of the bill goes somewhat easier on the nonprofit groups than the original version had.

When the bill might reach its second and third reading into law (which always take place together) is anybody’s guess. If approved, the legislation would come into force on January 2017 and apply to donations that NGOs raise after that date.

“It’s a small law for small people,” commented MK Michal Rozin of Meretz. “It is McCarthyist political persecution spiced with fascism. It is an embarrassing move by small politicians devoid of vision, who are embarrassing the Knesset.”

“There isn’t much in this law,” said MK Miki Rosenthal of the Zionist Union. “The law doesn’t do much damage, aside from international damage. But it doesn’t serve transparency.”

Rosenthal added that the Justice Ministry should have done its utmost to block this bill from passing at all, because of the damage it does to the professional echelon of public service.

“The Justice Ministry wouldn’t have approved the law, but they saw what was done to the antitrust commissioner and to the head of the Electricity Authority,” Rosenthal continued, referring to two public servants who were fired. “They realized there’s no point in fighting this government.”

Relevant NGOs will also have to disclose the nature of their funding in all their written publicity material, and in all correspondence with elected officials or public servants. In its reports to the public, the NGO will also have to state that the names of the entities and foreign governments funding it are available on the registrar of associations’ website.

NGOs in noncompliance could be fined as much as 29,200 shekels (about $7,500).

Following discussions with the Justice Ministry, representatives of relevant NGOs will not have to wear special badges when visiting the Knesset. The final version of the bill also forgoes requiring announcement for the record, when a representative of the NGO visits the Knesset, that the group receives more than half its funding from foreign governmental agencies. The representative does, however, have to advise the committee secretary that this is the case.

If during a hearing an NGO representative is asked about his group’s funding by an MK, he must answer, otherwise the chairman can refuse to give him the floor. Nor will the law apply to donations by private individuals, even if foreign.

MK Benny Begin (Likud), the only coalition member who criticized the law, said that he feels the way to handle the involvement of other nations in Israel’s affairs is through diplomatic means. “The way they chose here isn’t efficient and could have the opposite result of what they hope,” Begin said.

MK Revital Swid of the Zionist Union also noted that the law has been emptied – nobody has to wear badges or make any announcements at the start of Knesset discussions. Its sole point is political gain by certain parties, Swid said.