Legislation Panel Approves Bills to Restrict Foreign Funding of NGOs

Bill would limit to NIS 20,000 the amount that a 'political' NGO seeking to influence state policies could receive from 'foreign state entities.'

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved two private-member bills that seek to restrict the funding nongovernment organizations can receive from foreign governments. The law proposals are widely regarded as attempts to muzzle left-leaning human rights groups.

The first bill, sponsored by MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Ofir Akunis (Likud ) would limit to NIS 20,000 the amount that a "political" NGO seeking to influence state policies could receive from "foreign state entities," such as the United Nations and the European Union.

The second, sponsored by MK Fania Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu ), would impose a 45% tax on foreign funding to NGOs that receive Israeli government funding.

The bills passed 11-5. After the vote, four of the five ministers who objected demanded a revote, which will apparently take place next week, allowing time for the two bills to be merged into one. If it passes again on the revote, the bill will go to the Knesset with government backing.

In addition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the ministers who supported the bill included Yuval Steinitz, Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan, Limor Livnat and Moshe Kahalon (Likud ); Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi ); and Yitzhak Aharonovich, Yossi Peled, Stas Misezhnikov and Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu ). Voting against were Benny Begin, Michael Eitan and Dan Meridor (Likud ); and Orit Noked and Shalom Simhon (Atzmaut ). Two Shas ministers abstained. Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman did not participate in the vote, and Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein was absent due to illness.

Begin, Meridor, Simhon and Noked were the ministers who demanded the revote.

Netanyahu told a meeting of Likud ministers Sunday that he supported the two bills in principle, though with reservations. According to sources, Netanyahu wants to raise the limit that NGOs would be able to accept, and to differentiate between human rights groups and those whose activities are primarily political.

As of now, the Likud bill poses legal problems because there is no legal definition of a "political" NGO.

In an exceptional move, the head of the National Security Council, Yaakov Amidror, appeared before the ministerial panel and presented a view contrary to that of the prime minister. Amidror was invited to the meeting by Begin to describe how such a law would affect Israeli-European relations, and he told the ministers that he had already been warned by the British and EU ambassadors to Israel that relations would be severely damaged if the law passed.

"It was totally weird," said one minister. "The prime minister was telling us to support the law, and his senior adviser was trying to persuade us to oppose it."

Livnat asked Amidror if his office had done any in-depth investigation into what would hurt Israel's international standing more - passage of these bills or the activities of groups like Machsom Watch and Breaking the Silence.

Peled, who supported the bills, said, "What bothers me is that we try to look at ourselves as if we are like other countries, but we can't relate to things that way. We live in a special situation that is not characteristic of any other country. We can't accept that a group like Breaking the Silence gets foreign funding to persecute Israel Defense Forces soldiers."

MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) released figures Sunday showing that the EU had given human rights groups in Israel NIS 1.8 million in 2010, and is giving a similar amount this year.

"These bills poison democracy," Gal-On said. "They encourage violence against human rights and peace activists, terrorize [them] and encourage the self-censorship that we have already witnessed in several media outlets.

"Without the ability to promote a worldview, opinions and goals that are not supported by the majority at a given time, there is no democracy. And when the majority tries to silence the minority and deprive it of its freedom of assembly, expression and protest, then it is not majority rule but a dictatorship of the majority," she added.

Haggai Elad, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, vowed to continue the struggle "against an array of laws that threaten the state's democratic nature."