Netanyahu Publicly Backs Bill Aimed at Leftist NGOs, Says Goal Is 'Transparency'

'I fail to understand how greater transparency is undemocratic,' prime minister says. Proposal requires organizations getting more than half their funding from foreign governments to wear tags in Knesset.

Netanyahu speaks to members of the foreign media based in Israel, Jerusalem, January 14, 2016.
AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out openly on Thursday in favor of a controversial “NGO transparency bill” that primarily affects left-wing organizations.

The bill, promoted by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, states that if a nongovernmental organization receives more than half its funding from a foreign government, its representatives must wear tags stating as much when they appear in the Knesset. Almost all the NGOs that receive foreign government funding are left-wing.

“I fail to understand how greater transparency is undemocratic. It is the most obvious request in every democracy,” Netanyahu said Thursday during the Government Press Office's annual toast for members of the foreign media in Israel. “Transparency is the heart of democracy. When you hear about the use and abuse of NGOs here – transparency is the least we want and is much warranted and it is common sense. Israel is being held to a different standard here.”

Netanyahu also compared the bill to a law enacted by the U.S. Congress in January 2015. That law says that if representatives of an NGO that receives money from a foreign country are appearing at a congressional hearing, they must submit a written declaration about their foreign funding before the hearing. The American law, Netanyahu said, is far more stringent than the Israeli proposal, because it applies even if the NGO receives only one dollar from a foreign government, whereas the Israeli law would apply only to groups that obtain more than half their funding from foreign governments.

Netanyahu’s comments were made in response to fierce international criticism of the Israeli bill. On Sunday, for instance, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro met with Shaked to voice the American administration’s concerns over the proposal, which he said would have a “chilling effect” on NGO activity. Shapiro has also met over the last few weeks with senior officials in both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office to express his government’s objections to the law.

Europe weighs in

The ambassadors of Germany, Britain, France, Holland and the European Union have also made their displeasure known to both Shaked and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The bill was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation a few weeks ago, which in theory obligates the coalition to support it. It is now being discussed by the Knesset.

After Shapiro’s meeting with Shaked, the U.S. embassy even took the extremely unusual step of issuing a press statement about it.

“Among the topics discussed was the government’s draft NGO bill, which would require Israeli NGOs who receive a majority of their funding from foreign governments to be labeled as such,” the statement said. “Ambassador Shapiro sought more information about the draft legislation from the Minister, and noted the U.S. government’s concerns on the matter.”

“The Ambassador noted that Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy, which gives substantial voice to all points of view and promotes a thriving, transparent civil society,” the statement continued. “He reiterated the United States’ view that such a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.”