Foreign Relations & International Law

The Issues Behind Israel's NGO Law

Gerald Steinberg
Wednesday, January 6, 2016, 2:03 PM

According to a Washington Post editorial, headlined “A Danger to Israeli Democracy” proposed legislation “that would stigmatize nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from overseas” reflects “the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent.” The editorial repeats the main points in press releases from groups opposing the proposal, claiming that “the legislation is aimed at delegitimizing progressive grou

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According to a Washington Post editorial, headlined “A Danger to Israeli Democracy” proposed legislation “that would stigmatize nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from overseas” reflects “the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent.” The editorial repeats the main points in press releases from groups opposing the proposal, claiming that “the legislation is aimed at delegitimizing progressive groups in Israel that have long been advocates for human rights and opposed to Jewish settlements. ...”

But Israel is not Vladimir Putin’s Russia or communist China, and the issues involved, including attempts to manipulate Israeli democracy through “civil society,” go beyond ideological slogans. The Knesset proposal currently under consideration and the public debate on efforts to curtail European government-funded political NGOs reflect very serious and widely held concerns among large parts of the society. The issues include the integrity of the democratic process, erosion of national sovereignty, pernicious demonization campaigns targeting the IDF, and external funding accountability and transparency.

The legislation proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, which must go through preliminary votes and committee hearings before a final vote, would designate NGOs whose income is largely from external governments as foreign agents. Presented as an extension of existing transparency regulations, the regulations would require a note in NGO publications, letters to public officials, and protocols of testimony in Knesset committees listing foreign government funders. The Post editorial is wrong on one key point: the idea of special tags to be worn in meetings with officials, which features prominently in the editorial, was actually dropped from an earlier version of the legislation. Violations would be punishable by a minor fine of about $4000--insignificant for groups with annual incomes of $1 million or more. The most important aspect of the bill is the symbolism conveyed by the “foreign agent” designation, particularly in Israel, where sovereignty and self-determination are taken seriously.

In this sense, the proposed legislation is similar in spirit and purpose to US Foreign Agent Registration Act (1938), and the rules adopted last year in the House of Representatives, requiring witnesses testifying before a committee in a “nongovernmental capacity” to disclose “the amount and country of origin of any payment or contract related to the subject matter of the hearing originating with a foreign government.” Such regulations seek to prevent foreign governments from secretive and undue influence over democratic processes, outside diplomatic channels. (No Washington Post editorial has compared Congress to Putin’s Russia).

Shaked’s proposal follows many earlier efforts and angry exchanges on the tens of millions of shekels given by foreign governments to radical Israeli NGOs. During the election campaign in early 2015, candidates and parties on the right sought votes by pledging to address the NGO wars. Recently, centrist politicians such as Yair Lapid and Michael Oren, and some on the left, have joined the criticism.

Although NGOs have always been significant actors in Israeli politics and society, in the past fifteen years, a network of about 30 groups claiming to promote human rights and peace have received large grants from the European Union and individual governments. The scale of this funding, with annual budgets upwards of $1 million, as well as the extreme secrecy and impact, are unique; there are no parallels in relations between democracies. Although the EU has funded a few U.S.-based groups that oppose the death penalty, and there are some other isolated examples, Israeli NGOs are specifically and intentionally targeted. Imagine the response if Europe were to provide $2 billion--the per capita equivalent--to fringe American NGOs focusing on controversial issues, such as abortion or immigration.

In Western Europe, NGOs are important vehicles for exercising the normative or “soft power” that post-Cold War officials have defined as the central dimension of their foreign policy. And among Europeans dealing with the Middle East, support for Israeli NGOs seeking to overturn the government’s policies in the “occupied territories” is an effective form of influence. The money gives a handful of activists in each NGO, many of whom are unsuccessful politicians, the resources to write reports, hold press conferences, and travel the world promoting their strongly held opinions. Their allegations, including charges of “war crimes,” are often quoted, without verification, in official European documents and used to justify punitive policies, such as the recent EU product labeling guidelines.

The activities of a small fringe group known as “Breaking the Silence” (BtS), which are the center of the current Israeli debate, provide an important example. BtS has been operating in Israel for over a decade, criticizing the IDF, triggering only limited debates. With a budget of over a million dollars, more than half from European governments, seven or eight activists travel the world with accusations against the IDF, speaking at conferences and holding photo exhibitions. Their claims, although based on anonymous and often second-hand “testimonies,” are seen as automatically credible simply because they are Israelis, and are welcomed by audiences on university campuses, and among anti-war church charities and similar groups.

But for thousands of Israeli veterans, their families, and relatives of soldiers killed or wounded in action, these campaigns abroad create a great deal of anger and frustration. When Israeli products are boycotted, cultural performances in Europe are violently disrupted, students attending universities in the UK are accused of being war criminals, or tourists are interrogated at airports because their names appear on some NGO blacklist, Israelis increasingly hold BtS responsible, along with their government funder and enablers.

The 2009 UN Report on the fighting in Gaza, which was later discredited by its own primary author, Judge Richard Goldstone, led to a major awakening among Israelis. The litany of war crimes allegations was largely based on false or unverifiable claims made by NGOs claiming to have military and legal expertise, including BtS, as well as groups such as B’tselem, Yesh Din, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and their Palestinian counterparts such as Al Haq. These NGOs all receive European state funding.

As a result, in Israel, this is not a free speech issue; rather, the NGO legislation seeks to counter what is seen by many as costly and unjust demonization and warfare enabled by European governments. It is also a reaction to the attack on sovereignty and the perceived European manipulation of Israeli democracy. In democracies, civil society organizations are supposed to arise indigenously and not as tools of external actors promoting their own interests and political manipulations. By definition, non-governmental organizations are not supposed to be arms of governments; when they are, they become incongruous GONGOs (governmental non-governmental organizations). Since Israel cannot make force Europe to restrict its funding, officials have sought other means, in the form of legislation focusing on the recipients.

The lack of transparency among the European frameworks providing NGO funding is an additional source of Israeli frustration. Documentation of the decision-making processes, the officials who are involved, objectives, and evaluations are all top secret. In most cases, European members of parliament and journalists do not have enough information to ask questions or begin investigations.

In August 2015, the EU Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), whose annual budget exceeds €100 million, provided an additional €250,000 to BtS, which was only acknowledged following correspondence from NGO Monitor. This move was interpreted as a deliberate slap in the face, adding momentum and support for legislation. Indeed, other proposed laws go much further than Shaked’s symbolic approach, calling for restrictions and large fines on foreign funded NGOs.

Among the allegations made by opponents of the Shaked bill, the charge that the proposed law constitutes a witch-hunt against the left stands out. Indeed, all of the NGOs that receive European government funds are on the left of the political spectrum, while private funding for political NGOs in Israel is generally lower in terms of annual income, and is distributed roughly evenly to both right and left. For example, Im Tirtzu, which is a vocal NGO on the right fringe, has an annual budget of $500,000. In addition, private funding to Israeli NGOs, which is regulated by the Registrar of Non-Profits, does not constitute a violation of national sovereignty, unlike funds to NGOs provided by foreign governments. By transferring budgets to favorite Israeli civil society groups, European governments are seen as using these groups in order to impose their interests and ideologies on the democratic process.

Finally, funding from foreign governments that empowers fringe radical groups on the left, such as Breaking the Silence, is politically polarizing. This foreign support serves to justify diatribes from groups on the far right, such as Im Tirtzu.

For all of these reasons, the NGO debate and response in Israel is entirely different from that in Russia and Turkey. Notwithstanding the heated rhetoric from officials of the European-funded NGOs and their supporters, the proposed Israelis measures are not efforts by dictators attempting to block internal criticism. Legislation to counter efforts by a small number of influential and unaccountable groups financed by foreign governments to impose their opinions and preferences on Israel is hardly undemocratic.

Gerald M. Steinberg is a professor of politics at Bar Ilan University and founder/president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute whose publications were instrumental in initiating the Israeli debate on political NGOs and foreign government funding.

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