European Parliament Faction Heads to Rivlin: NGO Funding Bill Could Hurt Israel-EU Ties

Ahead of Europe visit, president receives letter from five European leaders expressing 'concerns about the mounting pressure and recent attacks against civil society organization in Israel.'

President Reuven Rivlin.
Olivier Fitoussi

Five heads of four factions that together comprise nearly half the European Parliament have warned that passage of a controversial bill requiring Israeli nongovernmental organizations to report foreign funding sources could hurt Israel’s relations with the European Union. In a letter to President Reuven Rivlin, who is scheduled to fly to Europe Sunday and to address the parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, the five faction leaders said that the bill encourages attacks against human-rights activists.

The so-called “transparency bill” mainly affects left-wing human-rights organizations. It was introduced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, with the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rivlin will meet with EP President Martin Schulz, as well as Belgium’s King Phillipe and Prime Minister Charles Michel. Meetings are also scheduled with European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

The letter, a copy of which has reached Haaretz, was sent on June 8. The four signatories represent nearly half of parliament: Gianni Pittella is president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (190 MEPs). Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, heads the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (70 MEPs). Philippe Lamberts and Rebecca Harms co-chair the Greens-European Free Alliance (50 MEPs). Gabriele Zimmer’s Confederal Group of the European United Left has 52 MEPs.

The five wrote Rivlin that they view Israel as “an important partner for the EU” and stressed that Israeli and European societies share a common vision and values.

They went on to say that the European Parliament maintains friendly relations with the Knesset, based on these shared values, and that the parties they head work with a range of Israeli civil-society organizations.

“It is on this background that we express our concerns about the mounting pressure and recent attacks against civil society organizations in Israel,” the five wrote. “A number of Israeli civil society representatives have recently reported about an unprecedented phenomenon of shrinking space for their activities, attempts to delegitimise their operations and direct and indirect harassment, including physical threats.”

The five MEPs say this is why they are “particularly concerned about the so-called NGO Bill currently discussed in the Knesset.” They termed the draft law “discriminatory” because it would not apply to all NGOs that receive foreign funding.

The Justice Ministry says the law will apply to 27 NGOs, 25 of which are human-rights groups associated with the left. The MEPs added that the law stigmatized these activists as foreign agents. This “may incite further attacks and may damage Israel’s democratic foundation and international standing.”

Their letter stated that “Israel and Europe are close partners in the fields of political cooperation and culture. We fear that if the reported pressure on Israeli civil society continues to grow our long-standing and strong cooperation may inevitably suffer.” The five wrote Rivlin that they are familiar with his “strong personal commitment to democracy, fundamental freedoms and human rights” which is why they ask him to forcefully stand alongside civil society activists who need his help, “raising your voice against the NGO Bill as well as against incitement campaigns targeting these groups. We are convinced that your action may prove to be decisive in protecting vibrant Israeli civil society.”

The Constitution, Law and Justice Knesset committee now has three versions of this bill. One is sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. There are two other private bills, one proposed by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi). The bill would require any NGO that receives more than half of its funding from foreign governments must state this fact on all of its official documents or publications. Some versions of the bill require representatives of these NGOs to wear special badges every time they enter the Knesset. These versions were approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and were passed by the Knesset in preliminary reading. The Knesset committee is preparing them for second and third readings, which are expected to take place in the coming weeks.