U.S. Envoy Power to Netanyahu: 'NGO Bill' Could Harm Israeli Democracy

American diplomat's criticism was followed by similar concerns by Germany's Merkel; Netanyahu's response: legislation would promote transparency and therefore strengthens democracy.

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US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power gives a speech at the Israel Middle East Model UN Conference on February 15, 2016 in the Israeli city of Even Yehuda.
US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power gives a speech at the Israel Middle East Model UN Conference on February 15, 2016 in the Israeli city of Even Yehuda. Credit: AFP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, Samantha Power, told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in Jerusalem on Monday that the U.S. administration is concerned about legislation that the Netanyahu government is promoting on disclosure of foreign government funding of non-governmental organizations. 

The so-called "NGO bill," which is primarily directed at left-wing Israeli groups, could do harm to civil society organizations and Israeli democracy as a whole, Power said, according to Israeli sources who had been briefed on the contents of the meeting. The sources asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. 

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that Power raised the issue of the legislation during the meeting with Netanyahu. Netanyahu responded that the legislation is not anti-democratic but instead would promote transparency and therefore strengthens democracy, the sources said. "We are not barring the activities of human rights organizations and only require that their activities be more transparent to the public," the prime minister reportedly told the visiting American diplomat.

In the course of the meeting, Power condemned the ongoing wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis as well as incitement against Israel and expressed her condolences over its victims. On the other hand, she urged Israel to take "meaningful steps to preserve the prospects for a two-state solution" in the future. Power stressed the opposition of the United States to Israeli settlement construction and to home demotions of Palestinians.

Two days before Monday’s meeting, Power met in Jerusalem with representatives of several Israeli non-profit organizations, including human rights groups such as B’Tselem and Yesh Din, which have come under severe attack in recent months by members of the cabinet and other right-wing spokespeople. Representatives of the New Israel Fund, the Mossawa organization and Women of the Wall were also in attendence at the meeting. Other participants included representatives of Zaka and Kama-tech, an NGO working for the integration of Orthodox Jews into the workplace.

At the meeting, Power said human rights organizations in Israel deserved support. “A free and vibrant civil society is essential to a healthy democracy. Governments must foster an atmosphere in which all voices can be heard,” she said.

The criticism that Power leveled against the "NGO bill" in her meeting with the prime minister follows a wave of international criticism against the legislation, which is being sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and supported by Netanyahu. A day after his meeting with Power, Netanyahu heard similar criticism about the proposed legislation from German Chancellor Angela Merkel when the two met in Berlin.

The international criticism of recent months has led to the bill being watered down, with the removal of a number of purportedly problematic provisions. One such provision would have required that representatives of groups getting more than half their funding from foreign governments wear special tags on their visits to the Knesset.

Ten days ago, the legislation passed its first reading in the Knesset, with 50 in favor and 43 against, the first of three votes before it can become law. The version that was voted on would require that all groups getting more than half their funding from foreign governments disclose that in any publication or position paper that the organizations issue. Disclosure would also have to be made in the course of any contact that the groups have with elected officials and at any meeting at which minutes are taken.

The legislation has now been referred for further debate at the Knesset committee level and is expected to undergo additional changes before it is submitted for the two remaining votes. For his part, Netanyahu is interested in having the bill require that any organization getting foreign government funding be subject to the legislation “from the first dollar” and not only if the groups get over half of their financial support from governments abroad.

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