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November 15, 2011 6:44 pm

Israel Divided Over Foreign NGO Funding

avatar by Maxine Dovere

Gerald M. Steinberg of NGO Monitor at the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights.

At a meeting of the Netanyahu Ministerial Committee, a decision to approve a pair of legislative declarations limiting donations to NGO’s from foreign governments – first, by imposition of a 45% tax, second by “forbidding contributions over NIS 20,000” –  was approved 11 to 5. The legislation, which seeks to prevent “foreign governments” from using their money to interfere in internal Israeli politics” is supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Response from those in favor and those against has been adamant and highly charged. Questions about the baseline definition of democracy, human rights, and influence have been raised by both the “right “and the “left.” The Jerusalem Post labeled the two bills “problematic,” and said “using ideological criteria to determine which NGOs are eligible for donations or tax breaks, and which are not, curtails freedom of speech and is a slippery slope that could lead to politically motivated witch-hunts.”

Yisrael Beiteinu’s MK Faina Kirschenbaum submitted the taxation bill and Likud MK Danny Danon proposed legislation seeking to “investigate NGO funding received from foreign countries.” She says the legislation “is a fight for the image of the country.” Her co-sponsor, MK Ophir Akunis, said “this law will fix the twisted situation that existed here for many years.”

MK Danny Danon (Likud) spoke out in favor of the bill, saying “any organization that acts against the state should be illegal. Stopping these organizations’ funding is the first step in taking the marginal extreme- Left plague out of Israeli society. This bill tells foreign countries: Stay out of Israel’s internal affairs,” Danon said.

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In combination with the bill submitted by Danon, if passed, the pair of bills will severely hamper the ability of Non Government Organizations (NGO’s) deemed promoting an anti-Israeli agenda to operate. Kirschenbaum’s bill would levy a 45 percent tax on donations from foreign governments to any NGO in Israel. “There is no reason for the State of Israel to give tax exemptions to such donations,” she stated. “I hope that this bill will pass all of the entire [legislative] process as quickly as possible.”

Minister Limor Livnat criticized “countries that fund NGOs and use them to intervene in Israel’s affairs…It’s unacceptable that foreign countries will intervene in what happens here, a state that is fighting for its existence.”

Opposed to the proposed legislation were Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Begin, all members of the Likud. They are joined by Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon, Agricultural Minister Orit Noked, and National Security Council Chairman Yaakov Amidror. All requested further government discussion. Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, also spoke against the bills, and accused Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of being “the main figure to de-legitimize Israel.”

One voice from the opposition, MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) stood in favor of the Ministerial Committee’s decision, saying the action “cuts off the oxygen to the Trojan Horse also known as left-wing organizations, which are funded by Israel’s enemies, and admit to their motives and goals.”

In rare agreement, Kadima leader MK Livni joined MK Mofaz in full opposition to the proposed legislation.m”This is a cowardly act,” said Livni. “What is happening here today will be a trigger for those who do not accept the state of Israel….(it) will balance the de-legitimization.”  Calling the bill “anti-democratic,” she said it will “violate the interests of the state of Israel.” MK Amir Peretz (Labor) called the action “a blow to democracy while MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima) said  “the coalition is leading us to a fascist regime…The words ‘human rights’ and ‘civil rights’ have no meaning to the government,” Molla said. “They are trying to silence opponents and defy every democratic value.”

What position does Israel’s ally America take regarding foreign funding of NGO’s operating in the United States?  Can foreign governments use NGO’s to gain undue diplomatic, defense, or social influence on the American agenda?

The American policy towards NGO funding is quite straightforward. A State Department spokesman informed the Algemeiner that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, speaking in Krakow, Poland, in 2010, said the position of the United States vis a vis foreign funding of private organizations is that “in the United States, as in many other democracies,” said the Secretary, “it is legal and acceptable for private organizations to raise money abroad and receive grants from foreign governments.”

While funding by “specifically banned sources, such as terrorist groups” is not allowed, the Secretary assured that “civic organizations… do not need the approval of the United States Government to receive funds from overseas. She noted that foreign NGOs are “active inside the United States… We welcome these groups in the belief that they make our nation stronger and deepen relationships between America and the rest of the world.”

Speaking to the Jerusalem Post November 13, Professor Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, an organization that analyzes NGO activity and funding, said the proposed legislation highlighted an important domestic political issue – Israelis’ concerns over NGO funding. “The problem,” he said “lies with ‘secretive’ European government funding to NGOs in Israel…If European governments provided transparency over their funding instead of conducting it in a secretive way, it would be far less of an intense issue for Israelis.” While he expects some form of the law to eventually become law, he added that he expected there to be “significant legislative changes” to the bill before it passed into law. “The concept was approved, but not the details.”

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