Minister Shaked Defends NGOs 'Transparency' Bill in Letter to German Lawmakers

States should use diplomatic channels to convey their concerns and not finance local civil groups, justice minister writes after German MPs implore Netanyahu to bury legislation targeting leftist Israeli non-profits.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Noam Moscowitz

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Thursday wrote to the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group of the German Bundestag to defend the so-called "transparency" bill she is endorsing. She wrote that the bill, which would impose restrictions on leftist NGOs getting funding from abroad, is a necessity.

Shaked stressed that the bill is needed due to the fear that non-profits will be used by foreign governments and organizations to influence its politics.

"A serious public debate was held on the specific issue of whether it is appropriate for foreign governments to fund non-governmental organizations in Israel," Shaked wrote." Due to the significant role that NGOs play in Israel, apprehension was expressed over the involvement of foreign governments and organizations and how this could potentially infringe upon Israel's sovereignty. Concerns were raised that the non-transparent nature of foreign governmental funding could be used as a tool to interfere with and influence Israeli politics."

Shaked's letter was sent in response to senior German lawmakers' concerns over her bill. On Thursday, Haaretz reported that leading lawmakers of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group, who represent Germany's large parties, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to block the bill. They said that if such a bill is passed, it would make it more difficult for them to fight boycott attempts against Israel in Germany.

The main reason the four lawmakers sent the letter to Netanyahu is that numerous leftist NGOs in Israel receive contributions from six funds belonging to various German parties, whose activity is funded by the German taxpayer. The German parties' funds have offices in various states in the world, including Israel, and they advance values such as democracy and human rights.

Shaked is due to leave for Berlin on Sunday to meet with her German counterpart as part of the events marking the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two states.

Shaked asked Volker Beck, head of the German-Israeli Friendship Group, of the Green Party, to meet her with a few of his colleagues so she could explain her motives in advancing the bill. Shaked told Beck and the other German lawmakers that she was interested in hearing their views in person and openly discuss the issue.

Shaked said in her letter that NGOs are "a valued aspect" of Israeli society and "actively participate in domestic affairs. Israeli NGOs participate in Knesset committees and often meet with representatives of the government ministries, where serious engagement occurs." However, Shaked wrote that she believes "states should have open and frank discussions through diplomatic channels regarding their concerns rather than use funding of each other's national entities."

"I believe that encouraging a vibrant civil society includes prompting freedom of information and increasing of transparency of public activities," she added.

In the letter, the justice ministers provided explanations on the current legislation, as well as the proposed bill. "[I]t is important to emphasize, that both the law and the recent government[-sponsored] bill do not prohibit or impose any restriction on receiving the contributions themselves (from foreign state), fundraising, or on the activities of NGOs," she said. "There is nothing in the law or the bill to substantially change the existing situation in Israel or harm the democratic process."

Shaked's proposed bill was debated on Wednesday during meetings Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein held in Berlin with the president of the Bundestag and members of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee. The Bundestag president told Edelstein that German parties were deeply concerned over the bill.

German President Joachim Gauck, who is due to visit Jerusalem on Sunday, is also expected to raise the issue at his meetings with President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), who is accompanying Edelstein on his visit, said many German lawmakers protested against the bill and criticized it in harsh terms. "They told us – you're against marking products from the settlements and we're helping to fight against it, but you're marking left-wing NGOs in Israel," he said.

Beck said during the meetings with Edelstein and the MKs accompanying him that they see the legislation against the NGOs as an attempt to restrict the moves of the German parties' funds in Israel. "It's a move taken from Vladimir Putin's vocabulary," Beck told the Israeli lawmakers. "It's like the way he's acting against NGOs in Russia and defining them as foreign agents," he said.

Last month, Shaked submitted the so-called "transparency" bill, which imposes additional restrictions on leftist NGOs in Israel. The proposal focuses on groups that receive more than half their budget from "foreign state entities'" donations, which means that the bill is directed mainly against left wing NGOs.

The bill stipulates that such NGOs will be required to mention that a majority of their financial support comes from foreign states on all of their publications and public reports. Any written communications with lawmakers or public officials will also have to mention that fact.

Such NGOs, the bill further states, will also be subjected to the same restrictions limiting lobbyists in the Knesset. Representatives of such organization will wear tags naming them and their organizations. Violating each article of the bill could cost an NGO almost 30,000 shekels in penalty fees.