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Israeli Left-, Right-Wing at War Over NGO Transparency Bill

  • Cecily Hilleary

Israeli left wing demonstrators march holding placards protesting the right wing incitement against President Reuven Rivlin and human rights activists in Tel Aviv. December 19, 2015. An ultra-nationalist Israeli group has published a video accusing the heads of four of Israel's leading human rights organisations of being foreign agents funded by Europe and supporting Palestinians "involved in terrorism". The sign reads, "That's how occupation looks like."

Israeli left wing demonstrators march holding placards protesting the right wing incitement against President Reuven Rivlin and human rights activists in Tel Aviv. December 19, 2015. An ultra-nationalist Israeli group has published a video accusing the heads of four of Israel's leading human rights organisations of being foreign agents funded by Europe and supporting Palestinians "involved in terrorism". The sign reads, "That's how occupation looks like."

Israeli political factions are engaged in a heated battle over a pending bill which, if enacted, would require NGOs that receive at least half of their funds from foreign governments to publicly identify themselves and their majority donors in all communications with public or elected officials.

NGO’s are non-government organizations that operate on a nonprofit basis. They may be funded by governments, foundations, businesses or private individuals.

“The Israeli government view is whoever seeks to influence the policy of its members of parliament in the name of a foreign country’s money is no better and no worse than any other lobbyist working on behalf of the money it receives,” said Jeremy Man Saltan, an Israeli political analyst and Knesset insider. “Therefore, Israel wishes to create transparency in this area and prescribe a duty of disclosure with regard to the activities of the NGOs operating on behalf of foreign governments.”

Employees work at the offices of "Breaking the Silence" in Tel Aviv, Israel, December 16, 2015. An ultra-nationalist Israeli group has published a video accusing the heads of four Israel's leading human rights organisations, including "Breaking the Silence," of supporting terror.

Employees work at the offices of "Breaking the Silence" in Tel Aviv, Israel, December 16, 2015. An ultra-nationalist Israeli group has published a video accusing the heads of four Israel's leading human rights organisations, including "Breaking the Silence," of supporting terror.

The EU, for example, gives Israeli NGOs about $100 million a year, Saltan said.

“Most of the money is distributed through tenders that are open to all NGOs, yet it is the left-wing NGOs that receive a majority of the funding, because there is a clause that the money must go to organizations that support EU policy guidelines,” Saltan said, adding, “And recently, information on some of these organizations has surfaced.”

War of cultures

He was referring, in part, to the arrest this week of prominent left-wing activist Ezra Nawi, who was secretly recorded saying he helps Palestinian authorities find and kill Palestinians who sell land to Jews. Nawi's organization, Ta’ayush, receives funding in part from an Arizona-based Alliance for Global Justice.

This comes only weeks after the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu released a video (see below) entitled “Foreign Agents,” portraying four prominent NGO figures as “implants” working against Israeli interests, chiefly, the fight against terror.

And right wing activists are promising to disclose further damaging information about Nawi and the human rights group, B’Tselem, among others.

“I think it’s really important to view the NGO bill in the context of a greater battle being fought in Israel, what some people refer to as a ‘culture war’,” said Ori Nir, communications director at Americans for Peace Now.

“There is a battle that has been increasing rapidly in severity and rancor between progressive Israel – the old elite, as some people refer to it – and the Israel of the last two decades, which has been ruled almost exclusively by right wing governments.”

Nir said the proposed bill is part of that battle, an attempt by right-wing legislators to single out human rights and pro-peace organizations in Israel who receive funding from foreign governments.

“What people don’t know is that while the right-wing NGOs in Israel also receive a great deal of foreign funding, it’s not foreign government funding. It comes from foundations and individuals, and therefore, they wouldn’t be subjected to that kind of scrutiny.”

Scrutiny, said Nir, intended to “demean, degrade and humiliate” left-wingers.

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking in the Knesset in Jerusalem in a May 14, 2015, photo.

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking in the Knesset in Jerusalem in a May 14, 2015, photo.

Parallel in US law?

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who sponsored the controversial bill, has compared it to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a 1938 law which requires any parties or groups representing foreign governments and attempting to influence US public opinion, policy or laws to reveal those relationships and document all related activities and finances.

But some analysts say the comparison isn’t valid.

“FARA is specifically for people who act as agents of a foreign government in terms of their activities,” said Marc Schulman, Israeli historian and political blogger. “Here, you’re talking about an organization – let’s say, for the sake of argument, a women’s shelter -- any NGO, any civil society group.”

He points out that Israeli NGOs already disclose financial information in quarterly filings with the government.

“And they already have to state on their websites and everything else where they get their funding,” Schulman said. “After all, in America, you don’t go around Congress with a sign that says, ‘I represent the government of Saudi Arabia.’”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro met with Justice Minister Shaked on Sunday.

“He reiterated the United States’ view that such a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent,” read an embassy statement released a day later.

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