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Knesset Passes Controversial Transparency Law on Foreign-Funded NGOs

Israel adopted a law on Monday that will compel organizations that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments to disclose their foreign funding status to Israel’s Justice Ministry.

The “transparency bill,” as it was called by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, passed its third and final reading in the Knesset by a vote of 57-48. It significantly increases the transparency requirements of Israeli NGOs that rely on donations from foreign state entities or intergovernmental groups like the European Union.

The law seeks “to deal with the phenomenon of NGO’s who represent in Israel, in a non-transparent manner, the outside interests of foreign states, while pretending to be a domestic organization concerned with the interests of the Israeli public,” its preface read. The foreign funding of the relevant groups will need to be noted on their website and on any publications the groups release to public or government officials.

The law has drawn criticism from some legislators, including leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog, over concerns that it would disproportionately affect groups critical of Israeli policies in the West Bank, which primarily receive their funds from foreign governments and the EU. Other groups that are seen as supportive of government policies often do not receive money from foreign entities, but do receive funds from private donors, which this bill does not address.

However, proponents of the law argue that the very fact that so many of these politically-active groups are primarily funded by — and therefore dependent on — foreign powers should be publicly recognized.

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of the watchdog group NGO Monitor, wrote in a Jerusalem Post op-ed on Sunday that “the millions of shekels transferred annually from European governments to about 30 very political Israeli NGOs is a serious issue.”

“The latest legislation is part of ongoing efforts to deal with a unique threat facing Israel – more than 15 years of demonization, [boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns] and lawfare,” he continued. “These political attacks have been enabled and bolstered by tens of millions of euros, pounds, Swiss francs, and krona from governments, provided to NGOs on a scale unseen anywhere else in the world.”

Steinberg listed the activities of some of the NGOs that benefit from this foreign funding, including NGOs such as Zochrot. The group, which calls on Israel to renounce “the colonial conception of its existence” and advocates for the immigration of Palestinian refugees and their descendants into Israel, was founded by Eitan Bronstein, who previously wrote of an ideal vision where Israeli Jews become minorities in their state and will “no longer be able to determine their future…by themselves.”

According to NGO Monitor, Zochrot received some 80% of its 2012-2014 donations from church aid societies funded by the governments of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Ireland, and other countries.

Israelis see European funding of Zochrot and similar groups “as an attempt to manipulate Israeli democracy and generate external pressure to overturn the results of the democratic process,” Steinberg observed.

There are about 15,000 active NGOs in Israel today, 70 of which deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Reuters. The Justice Ministry revealed that 27 groups will be impacted by the law.

“I expect countries (to) … try to influence Israel in a diplomatic path and not by funding millions of dollars or euros to NGOs that usually try to promote their views,” Shaked told Reuters.

“Imagine that Israel were to fund extra-parliamentary organizations in Britain that supported Brexit,” Shaked added while addressing lawmakers duing the debate over the bill. “What would happen then? Our ambassador would be called in immediately for a dressing-down, because Britain has its national dignity intact.”

In February, shortly after the draft of the legislation was first published, Steinberg argued in The Tower Magazine that foreign-funded NGOs assumed an outsized role in influencing Israel’s domestic policies and measures toward the country abroad. He noted that the “spirit and purpose” of the law is similar to “rules adopted last year in the U.S. House of Representatives, which requires witnesses who testify 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.’ These regulations were adopted following an article in The New York Times that revealed countries like Qatar and Norway were donating millions of dollars to American think tanks like the Brookings Institution. The reports these groups produced were then used to lobby for the policies of their government financiers. The new regulations clearly intended to prevent foreign governments from secretive and undue influence over democratic processes.”

[Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90]