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Netanyahu’s War on NGOs Puts Israel in Bad Company

Government campaign against human rights groups casts it as another Russia, China or Pakistan

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony in memory of former statesman Shimon Peres, April 7, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony in memory of former statesman Shimon Peres, April 7, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tiff with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel over the latter’s meeting with B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence has once again highlighted the Israeli government’s campaign against foreign funding and support for nongovernmental organizations that monitor human rights violations and the occupation.

Netanyahu’s strong-arm diplomacy is part of the same internationally condemned approach that in July 2016 led the Knesset to pass the so-called NGO Transparency Law that compels foreign-funded groups to prominently display that fact on all of their official correspondence and publications.

Although Israelis like to view themselves and their predicaments as unique, Israel is not the only country that is taking increasingly aggressive steps to curtail the activities of foreign funded NGOs and to portray them as enemies of the state. Here is a partial list of other states that are moving in the same direction: Russia, Hungary, China, India, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Nigeria, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The common denominator of these states, of course, is that they are totalitarian, authoritarian, semi-authoritarian or partially democratic, but none are the kind of full-fledged democracies that Israel claims to be. And while Israelis might think their case is totally different, the rationale presented by Netanyahu and his ministers for their fight against groups such as Breaking the Silence that “undermine Israeli sovereignty,” as Deputy Minister Michael Oren said this week, sounds exactly the same as the message being voiced throughout the NGO-opposing world.

China has outlawed NGOs that violate “Chinese society’s moral customs”; Russia targets “undesirable” NGOs that it considers "a threat to the foundation of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country or the security of the state”; India says environmental group Greenpeace stifles economic growth and “undermines India’s national interests”; Egypt has cracked down on NGOs that are “harmful” to the state and represent “foreign interests”; Uganda, which is fighting against homosexuality, has banned all NGOs that are “prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda”, including those that advocate for gay rights. Malaysia says foreign funded NGOs serve foreign interests that will turn all Malaysians into “foreign agents”. And so on.

The fight by autocratic regimes against NGOs is often for their own survival. In other cases, it is an attempt to remove obstacles to limiting democracy or to whip up public resentment of foreign interference or to simply remove any public scrutiny of their conduct. It is a global trend that has accelerated significantly in recent years, leading to what the Carnegie Endowment has described as “the viral spread of laws” against NGOs.

The anti-NGO wave started almost a dozen years ago, in the wake of the NGO-supported Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and U.S. President Bush’s push to democratize the Middle East. It picked up steam in the wake of the Arab Spring, as authoritarian governments grew fearful of the growing influence of civil society and revolutionary “people power.” Now it is being fueled by a growing global rejection of Western democracy and its liberal values, a trend that is bound to escalate even further in light of the fact that, unlike his predecessor, U.S. President Donald Trump has no interest whatsoever in promoting democracy around the world. His National Security Council or State Department wouldn’t dream of meeting representatives of Breaking the Silence, as Obama administration officials pointedly did in 2015 to protest the impending Transparency Law.

By waging open war against organizations that monitor human rights, especially in the West Bank, Netanyahu and his government are eroding Israeli democracy and pushing its government in an authoritarian direction. They are stifling freedom of speech and expression, inciting against dissenters and fueling suspicions about what they are trying to hide. And they are placing Israel in an ignoble list of countries that prefer to fight criticism and dissent rather than address the underlying grievances and causes.

Like individuals, states are judged by the company they keep. Netanyahu is consigning Israel to be viewed less as a Canada, Australia or United Kingdom and more as a China, Russia or Pakistan. No matter how many gullible Israelis are persuaded by Netanyahu’s disingenuous claim that B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence and other NGOs are tarnishing Israel’s image, nothing and no one does more damage to Israel’s international standing than the occupation – and Netanyahu himself.

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