Israel Okays Law Restricting NGO Funding of Political Campaigns

The legislation's declared intention is to make it harder for individuals to invest large sums of money to influence elections, but NGOs fear it would make it hard to promote public campaigns.

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Likud lawmaker David Bitan at the Knesset plenum, March 20, 2017.
Likud lawmaker David Bitan at the Knesset plenum, March 20, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

The Knesset voted on Monday in favor of a bill restricting non-profits seeking to promote political agendas during election campaigns.

Forty-one lawmakers voted in favor, while 27 opposed the bill, passing it into law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advanced the bill in its original form, after the extensive campaign waged by the V15 organization to oust Netanyahu from the premiership in the last elections.

Netanyahu advanced the bill in its original form, after the extensive campaign waged by the V15 organization to oust him from the premiership. Credit: Ilya Melnikov

The declared intention of the bill is make it harder for wealthy individuals to invest large sums of money to influence the outcome of Knesset elections and make an end-run around the party financing law. However, social action groups and other civil society organizations fear that the law will make it hard for them to raise funds and promote various public campaigns.

The enacted law sets three funding levels. Organizations raising fewer than 100,000 shekels will have no obligation to report. Organizations contributing between 100,000 shekels and 400,000 shekels will have to register with the state comptroller as an "active elections body." Groups in the second category will be able to accept donations of no more than 11,000 shekels from one donor or his close relatives during the campaign season, or 22,000 shekels between electoral campaigns.

Organizations in the third category, contributing over 400,000 shekels, will be obliged to incorporate and to employ an accountant to supervise and report donation collections. The law also states that any organization violating the law that raises over 500,000 shekels is liable to criminal punishment for fraud.

The law imposes the limitations on organizations that raise over 100,000 shekels and engage in any one of four activities during the electoral campaign: creating a database with voter details; transporting voters who share the same political positions to voting booths; appealing directly to voters with certain positions during the three months before elections in order to influence their vote; and releasing publications methodically to sway citizens to vote for or avoid a certain party during the electoral campaign.

The bill was held up for hours on Monday because the Knesset House Committee had approved a clause increasing funding to Knesset parties by about 20 million shekels (about $5.5 million). The decision was made without the approval of the Finance Ministry.

A number of controversial clauses were dropped from the bill ahead of the final vote, including a clause that was to have prevented restrictions on donors to media outlets that came out in support for a specific candidate, called by some the "Israel Hayom" clause after the free pro-Netanyahu daily.

Other problematic clauses struck from the new version included one prohibiting organizations from driving voters to polling stations in cases where voters’ political positions are assumed based on their place of residence.

This clause was intended to make it more difficult to provide free transportation to polling stations for ultra-Orthodox or Arab voters. Restrictions will now only be imposed on organizations that provide transportation to polling stations if the voters have declared their intent to support a particular party.

The legislators also reformulated a clause placing limitations on organizations compiling databases that divide voters by their principle political positions. The new version forbids such divisions only according to the declared intentions of voters.

MK Dov Khenin (Joint List) said the new law would be imposed mainly on left-wing organizations. "I agree with the principle of limiting external funding, certainly from abraod, in election campaign," he noted. "I am opposed because it is impossilbe to live with a double standard by which it is permissible to one side of politics and forbidden to the other side of politics."

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) accused the government of trying to "change the rules of the game" simply because it didn't like the fact that people were trying to replace the prime minister through democratic elections.

Yesh Atid, led by MK Yair Lapid, had already declared its support for the bill. "I also want to replace the regime, but we don't want to replace the government through shady business. We want to replace the government through democratic elections." She added, "This is a good law that if they wouldn't legislate it, we would." 

The original bill was formulated in consultation with the office of Netanyahu’s attorney, David Shimron.

MK Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union), who strongly opposed the bill and who spearheaded efforts to soften the final version, called from the Knesset rostrum on MK Yoav Kish (Likud), who submitted the bill.

“I know, MK Kish, that you’ll tell everyone that you passed the V15 bill. That will probably get you a few more points in the primary. But let’s tell the truth: You didn’t pass the bill you wanted nor the bill the prime minister wanted. This is a worrisome law, it’s not a good law, but it’s much less dangerous because of the work of opposition.”

Kish responded: "This bill is not meant to shut people up or to prevent people from expressing opinions and positions on public matters. Rather its goal is to regulate actions made for a certain party or against a certain party."