Israeli Government to Form Inquiry Committee Probing Foreign Funding of Left-wing Groups

Faction leaders unanimously decide to form parliamentary inquiry committee into funding for 'political organizations and activities meant to hurt Israeli soldiers' ■ Netanyahu likens probe to U.S. investigation into Russian election interference

Netanyahu during Sunday's cabinet meeting, October 15, 2017.
POOL/REUTERS

The heads of Israel's coalition parties agreed on Sunday to establish a parliamentary committee to probe the funding of left-wing nonprofit organizations by foreign governments, according both to sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to three people who attended the meeting where the decision was made.

The party leaders "unanimously decided to support the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry committee on the matter of foreign governments' involvement in funding political organizations and activities meant to hurt Israeli soldiers," a source close to Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu and coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) raised the proposal for the parliamentary committee during a periodic meeting of the leaders of all coalition parties, the sources said. Netanyahu told the group that establishing such a committee is important because the financing by foreign governments could tip an election in Israel.

According to two of the sources who attended the meeting, all the party heads voted in favor of establishing such a committee, including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon, they said, was enthusiastic about the move, saying that a parliamentary inquiry committee was likely to cause political embarrassment to Yair Lapid, chairman of the opposition party Yesh Atid.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett asked whether there’s any precedent for such intervention by the government in the affairs of nongovernmental organizations in general, and for a parliamentary inquiry committee as proposed by Bitan in particular.

Netanyahu responded affirmatively, citing the example of the U.S. congressional investigation into Russian interference in America’s 2016 presidential election. He added that the parliamentary committee could also examine to what degree foreign governments are meddling in Israel’s internal politics.

“Netanyahu said a parliamentary committee of inquiry is needed, just like the present investigation in Congress about Russian attempts to intervene in the [U.S.] elections,” one source said. 

The issue of the parliamentary inquiry arose while Tourism Minister Yariv Levin was briefing the assembled party leaders on his progress in drafting new government legislation targeting left-wing NGOs. During the briefing, Bitan proposed that along with preparing the new legislation, the government should also establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the issue, headed by a Knesset member from the ruling Likud party. Netanyahu promptly announced that he supported the idea.

In July 2016, the Knesset passed legislation requiring any organization that gets most of its funding from foreign governments to inform the register of nonprofit organizations of this fact and also note this in all its official publications. Almost all the affected organizations are identified with the left. In June 2017, Netanyahu told the coalition leaders that he wants to pass much more stringent legislation on this issue and put Levin in charge of doing so.

In January 2011, a proposal for a parliamentary inquiry committee similar to the one now proposed by Bitan advanced in the Knesset. That proposal was sponsored by former MK Faina Kirschenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu.

But in July 2011, the Knesset voted to remove the proposal from its agenda. Netanyahu said at the time that he opposed the establishment of a committee that would investigate left-wing groups and allowed coalition members to vote their conscience.  

Parliamentary commissions of inquiry are very limited in their ability to conduct in-depth investigations or enforce implementation of their recommendations. Every such commission of inquiry is required to present a final report with its conclusions to the speaker of the Knesset, who has the authority to decide whether to hold further discussions on the matter in the Knesset plenum.

Knesset rules allow the full Knesset to decide to refer the conclusions to the cabinet for examination and implementation, but cabinet ministers are not required to implement any of the conclusions.  

Parliamentary commissions of inquiry may run into difficulties in summoning experts or others involved in the matters under investigation. Similar to regular Knesset committees, the commissions of inquiry cannot require private individuals to appear before it. Only government or other public bodies can be required to appear before the committees. In practice, the Knesset often finds it difficult today to summon public officials to appear too.

For example, the committee examining the evacuation of the unauthorized outpost of Amona in 2006 was unable to summon senior military and police officers after the defense and public security ministers refused to allow them to appear, and came in to testify in front of the committee in their place, as the law allows. 

Both regular Knesset committees and committees of inquiry have the authority to issue subpoenas requiring government officials to appear before them, but this power is almost never used and has not been used in recent years, even in cases where the officials chose to boycott the sessions they were summoned to.