Israeli Ministers Pass Contentious Bill to 'Out' Foreign-funded NGOs

Bill that would impose regulations on non-profit organizations being funded by foreign governments passes key legislative hurdle.

Michal Fattal

A controversial bill to impose new regulations on NGOs funded mainly by foreign governments passed an all-important hurdle on Sunday as the committee representing the cabinet approved sending it the Knesset for passage or rejection. Opponents of the bill say it unfairly targets left-wing organizations. Only two ministers were present for the vote, Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) and Zeev Elkin (Likud). Other ministers left notes indicating their support for the bill.

The “Transparency Bill,” sponsored by Justice Minister Shaked, would require non-profits receiving more than half of their funding from foreign governments to officially note it in their official publications. In practice, the legislation would affect left-wing organizations almost exclusively.

The legislation is expected to receive the support of all the coalition’s factions when it is put to a preliminary Knesset vote later this week, as its passage into law was promised to Hayabit Hayehudi as part of its coalition agreement with Netanyahu.

Opposition pressure

The opposition is exerting pressure on Netanyahu and coalition members to prevent the vote. Europe also expressed concern regarding the legislation in recent weeks. At the beginning of the month, four senior lawmakers from Germany warned Netanyahu that advancement of the bill would make it harder for Israel’s allies in Germany to defend it in the face of boycotts or verbal attacks.

However, according to a source close to the prime minister, at present Netanyahu isn’t planning to prevent the Knesset vote.

Shortly before Sunday’s vote by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, opposition leader Isaac Herzog wrote on his Facebook page: “Ayelet Shaked, minister of justice – you are bringing forward a bad law, a censorious law that tarnishes our image and should not be included in Israel’s law books. This is a country that champions freedom of thought and expression and which was, until you came along, the only one in the Middle East to do so. But you are opposed to this, you want a thought police. You and the government you are part of, mainly the prime minister, want only one opinion to be heard. You are afraid of other opinions, too weak to confront anyone who disagrees with you.”

MK Michael Oren (Kulanu), a former ambassador to the United States, said he would not support the bill in its current form when it is brought to a Knesset vote. “As someone who has worked his entire life to advance the State of Israel’s foreign affairs, my conscience does not allow me to vote for the non-profits bill as it is drafted today,” he said. “The non-profits bill that is reaching a vote at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation today is a bill that could harm Israel’s foreign relations and image.

“I have no doubt,” he continued, “that left-wing non-profits such as Breaking the Silence are working to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and it is our duty as lawmakers to reveal their funding sources to the public. But such one-sided exposure, which ignores the funding sources of extreme-right non-profits, might play exactly into the hands of those elements that are trying to boycott us.”

In addition to requiring that NGOs receiving most of their funding from foreign governments note it publicly, the bill demands that the organizations provide details about that funding in any communication with elected officials. Violators of the provisions would be subject to a 29,000-shekel (about $7,500) fine. Representatives of the groups would also be required to wear a special tag at Knesset sessions.

Shaked hits back at EU

After the vote, Shaked said, “The European Union ambassador spoke out today against this bill, saying that it harms our democracy. He asked that Israel refrain from taking actions that would impede freedom of expression or association. I want to assure the ambassador that this bill will not affect freedom of expression. I believe that intervention by foreign states in the policies and regime of another country is what really endangers democracy. It’s unacceptable that the European Union donate funds to non-profit groups that operate in Israel’s name, whereas in fact they serve as tools in the hands of foreign countries to implement their own policies.”

Shaked added, “The ambassador was also concerned that the bill would encourage ‘shaming.’ First of all, these groups that adhere to their path and positions should not be ashamed of their opinions. Secondly, I’m surprised that the ambassador and the Union aren’t taking stock of their own actions. They consider as legitimate their decision to mark produce from the settlements, even though it’s hurting Israel’s economy and population. We ask that countries wanting to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs do so openly, using customary diplomatic channels.”

The Association of Civil Rights in Israel stated, “By approving this controversial law the ministers proved that their eagerness to silence criticism is greater than their support of democracy. The only aim of this law is to politically persecute anyone voicing strong opposition to government policy. The ministers thereby harm freedom of expression, protest and organization. The law also hurts equality since it imposes different guidelines on groups that obtain funding of a certain type. Since there is already transparency regarding funding by foreign states, focusing on it while ignoring private donations is aimed at limiting only those groups the government dislikes.”