Merkel to Netanyahu: Worried About Effect of 'NGO Bill' on Israeli Civil Society

Prime Minister asks German chancellor to assist in mediating the return of soldiers' bodies from Hamas in Gaza.

Barak Ravid
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Angela Merkel shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu following their press conference during the German-Israeli government consultations in Berlin, February 16, 2016.
Angela Merkel shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu following their press conference during the German-Israeli government consultations in Berlin, February 16, 2016.Credit: AP
Barak Ravid

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a summit meeting of the two governments in Berlin on Tuesday that she was very concerned about the so-called "NGO bill" the government is advancing concerning leftist NGOs and the negative effect it could have on civil society in Israel, German sources familiar with the details of the meeting told Haaretz.

According to these sources, Merkel told Netanyahu that she feared that the bill would restrict the activities of NGOs and cause damage to German foundations working with Israeli civil society. Netanyahu responded that the bill was not intended to harm any NGO, but rather to increase transparency. Netanyahu informed Merkel that in the bill’s current iteration, the clause requiring representatives of NGOs receiving more than half their funding from abroad to wear tags when they come to the Knesset has been removed.

During a press conference in Berlin at the end of the summit meeting, Netanyahu was asked about the bill and repeated what he had told Merkel. "The NGO bill is a bill that deals with transparency," Netanyahu said. "It's not a bill that deals with censorship. According to the bill, if a foreign government aids one organization or the other, it needs to be open and people must know of it. There are such rules in other countries, especially in the United States. There isn’t a law that is exactly identical to another, but the principle is the same principle, and that's why all we want is transparency."

The so-called “transparency bill” has become a key issue for Germany because many leftist NGOs in Israel receive donations from six foundations belonging to various political parties in Germany, whose activities are funded by the German taxpayer. These foundations have offices in different countries, including Israel, and deal with values like democracy and human rights.

Over the past few months, members of the caucus of Israel supporters in the German parliament have written to Netanyahu and to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked expressing concern over the bill. The German justice minister also broached the subject with Shaked, as did the speaker of the German parliament during Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s visit to Berlin. The main argument of the Germans is that the demand for transparency is only being made of left-wing groups, not those on the right.

During the meeting with Merkel, Netanyahu asked for Germany’s help in returning the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, which have been held by Hamas since the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014.

"Since Germany has helped us in the past with such issues, I asked them for their help in this case, too," Netanyahu said. Germany assisted Israel in the past – both during the term of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and during Netanyahu’s previous term – in negotiations with Hamas over the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, when a senior German intelligence official mediated between Hamas and Israel, although he was unable to close the deal for Shalit’s release.

The governments' summit in Berlin, the sixth to take place, also marked a half-century of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany. A number of Israeli ministers came to Berlin with Netanyahu and held meetings with their German counterparts. In an unusual gesture, Merkel joined Netanyahu unexpectedly for a tour of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.