Knesset Votes Down Proposal to Probe Funding of Leftist NGOs

Following a stormy debate, the Knesset voted yesterday against a contentious proposal to investigate funding sources for human rights organizations in Israel.

A majority of 57 MKs voted against the two bills, proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu MK Faina Kirshenbaum and Likud MK Danny Danon; 28 voted in favor of the proposal to set up two parliamentary inquiry panels to investigate NGOs.

The vote followed a fierce Knesset debate in which 53 Knesset members asked to take the podium.

Kirshenbaum, who sponsored the first bill, opened the debate. "We all feel there's a problem, so I proposed setting up a parliamentary investigation committee. I want to look into it," she said.

"You are the problem," MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz ) shouted at her.

"When we understand what the problem is," Kirshenbaum continued, "we'll find the right way to solve it. What are you afraid of? Me? Of transparency?"

Horowitz blasted Kirshenbaum, accusing her of tarnishing Israel's global reputation.

"Your disgraceful acts cause the world to view us as a state with no democracy," he said. "You take advantage of Israeli democracy to bring about something more suitable to a totalitarian regime. Shame on you."

MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ) also challenged Kirshenbaum: "You say this isn't an investigation committee at all, but academic research?"

"It's Orwellian language, 1984," Yachimovich said, suggesting the probe would constitute a Big Brother-like infringement of democratic values. "These are not right-wing proposals. ... This is a very small, marginal bunch that has taken over the Knesset, and there's nobody to stop it from happening."

MK Ahmed Tibi (Ra'am Ta'al ) sarcastically praised Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu ) for his party's attempt to bring Israel "one step closer to 1984."

"This Knesset surpasses itself each time with a new McCarthyist low, and the right wing leads it from nadir to nadir, with Kirshenbaum and Danny Danon," he said.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni was vocal in her condemnation of the proposal yesterday, calling it undemocratic.

"The idea that Knesset members probe people who do not share their opinions is shocking and should never have been brought forward," Livni said.

"Beyond being an anti-democratic (proposal ) it also harms the interests of the State of Israel," Livni added. "The idea that MKs want to investigate citizens who are not party to their views is horrifying."

"An ill wind is blowing through the country - created by (Prime Minister Benjamin ) Netanyahu's coalition," Livni said.

Prior to the vote, Netanyahu's office had applied pressure on Likud MKs to vote against the bill put forth by the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Even before Netanyahu said he would vote against the bill, it was apparent that most of his Likud cabinet colleagues opposed it.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday that Netanyahu and other coalition leaders had previously supported his faction's proposal but had changed their stance due to international and media pressure.

During a press conference yesterday as the Knesset discussed the bill, Lieberman said his party sponsored the bill in coordination with the coalition and the cabinet, which approved of it.

"What changed since the preliminary vote in the Knesset?," Lieberman asked. "There was pressure from the media and the international arena. All of a sudden Israeli leaders cannot withstand the pressure and are changing their position dramatically."

Lieberman added that, after the bill was passed in the Knesset plenum, he received hints from coalition leaders to delay the vote, but he changed his mind after the Likud-sponsored Boycott Bill was brought to a vote and passed.

The factions of Habayit Hayehudi, United Torah Judaism and Shas - except for two Shas members - were absent and did not take part in yesterday's vote.

The proposal to probe NGOs has been harshly condemned by organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has openly refused to participate in any such investigation and promised instead to continue to "act firmly in the pursuit of human rights for all."

Americans for Peace Now also spoke out against the proposal to probe NGOs, stating that American Jews "must do everything ... to stop these appalling attacks on what makes the Jewish state so central to our values system."