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January 14, 2016 2:08 pm

With Friends Like These, Why Does Israel Need Enemies?

avatar by Judith Bergman

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Photo: Twitter Screenshot.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Photo: Twitter Screenshot.

The US administration is concerned about a new Israeli bill, dubbed the NGO bill, which requires nongovernmental organizations that receive ‎more than 50% of their funding from foreign government entities to detail the funding sources in all ‎their official publications and communications with elected officials. Activists from the NGOs also ‎will be required to wear identifying name tags when working in Israel’s Knesset, as lobbyists do.

This bill is seen by many as targeting certain left-wing organizations that receive substantial funding from abroad.

US Ambassador Dan Shapiro expressed the US’ concern over the NGO bill on Sunday, when he met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. On Monday, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv issued what is considered a highly unusual statement regarding the meeting.

“Among the topics discussed was the government’s draft NGO bill,” stated the announcement. “Ambassador Shapiro sought more information about the draft legislation from the minister, and noted the US government’s concerns on the matter.”

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“The ambassador noted that Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy, which gives substantial voice to all points of view and promotes a thriving, transparent civil society,” it continued. “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 and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.”

In an additional statement, the US Embassy dismissed comparisons between the NGO bill and a set of US laws mandating the registration of foreign interest lobbyists.

“The draft Israeli law would target NGOs simply because they are funded principally by foreign government entities. That is not how the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) works,” the embassy asserted. “FARA requires individuals or organizations to register as foreign agents only if they engage in certain specified activities at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a foreign principal — not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity. As a result, it does not create the chilling effect on NGO activities that we are concerned about in reviewing the draft Israeli NGO law.”

And then the Anti-Defamation League chimed in on Monday — because there is nothing quite like Diaspora Jews telling Israelis what to do from the comfort of their armchairs thousands of miles away: “The strength of Israeli society internally, as well as its international position, has been its bedrock commitment to democracy and free expression,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “There is no doubt that many Israelis today feel beleaguered, both by the security situation and the campaign to undermine the Jewish state’s legitimacy,” he continued.

“However, efforts to counter such campaigns through the tarring of NGOs and those holding certain political perspectives, threaten to erode Israel’s very democratic character, and could significantly harm Israel’s international legitimacy. We urge Knesset members to carefully consider the negative ramifications of the passage of this legislation,” he said.

As has been stated in this column previously in response to the EU’s meddling in the issue, the bill breaches no one’s rights, least of all anyone’s rights to freedom of speech ‎and association. The bill sets up reasonable and fair requirements even if the US administration happens to dislike them or interpret them as being different from American legislation.

What the US deliberately ignores is that Israel is a country surrounded by terrorist enemies and our situation here cannot in any way be compared to that of either the US or the EU. Having foreign powers meddle in an already explosive situation through the funding and instruction of subversive local NGOs is dangerous and it would be outrageous for any government to tolerate — and yet Israel continues to tolerate it! All the bill is doing is requiring a modicum of transparency. Given our situation that is actually extremely generous and shows the extreme respect that Israel pays every conceivable principle of democracy. It is doubtful that any of the countries now voicing their displeasure with Shaked’s bill would tolerate the level of intrusion from other governments that Israel does, if they happened to find themselves in our security predicament.

Shaked rejected the US’ attempt to intervene. “[Sunday] I met the American ambassador and was under the impression that the American administration’s interest and concern is sincere,” she said. “But there is no cause for concern. Israel is a strong democracy and as such there is no need for other nations to intervene in internal legislation. Our door is open to dialogue with friends. … It is the right of any organization in Israel to object to any legislation. But it is very strange to me that foreign governments extend their long arms into internal legislation processes.”

The US’ pathetic hypocrisy regarding the NGO bill was dramatically highlighted on Tuesday when it surfaced that former Secretary of State and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was considering using precisely those much-debated local NGOs to force the American administration’s own agenda on Israel. The plan was to generate Tahrir Square-style demonstrations, which would catch the attention of the world and thus build pressure on the Israeli government to make the concessions that the US had failed to force on it. The plan was outlined in an email sent by former US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Pickering, which was recently made public as part of an investigation into Clinton’s correspondence. It is clear from the email that the former ambassador was fully aware that this ostensibly low-key revolt might erupt into violence.

Pickering made the following suggestions in his email: “What will change the situation is a major effort to use nonviolent protests and demonstrations to put peace back in the center of people’s aspirations as well as their thoughts, and use that to influence the political leadership. … On the Israeli side, it must be public demonstrations and show growth as well. Outside the Prime Minister’s Office and the major squares and parks in Jerusalem and elsewhere have been the traditional places for demonstrations like this for peace and change to begin and persevere. Rabin Square in Tel Aviv would be right. The Peace Now organization, despite its decline, is one starting point.”

“Most of all the United States, in my view, cannot be seen to have stimulated, encouraged or be the power behind it for reasons you will understand better than anyone. I believe third parties and a number NGOs on both sides would help, particularly if there were an outline of a peace document with parameters which, like those at the end of the Clinton administration, promised a fair and lasting peace and which the women on both sides could agree to support.”

The above email is beyond embarrassing, it shows an appalling lack of understanding of Israeli affairs by someone who had served as an ambassador to the country. It shows a commitment to a flawed and biased “narrative” of the Israeli situation.

Evidently, the American push to defeat the NGO bill is not driven by any ostensible concern for “democracy” but by the US administration’s own vested interests. Because the NGO bill would severely diminish the US ability to pull a stunt such as the one suggested by Pickering without being “seen to have stimulated, encouraged or be the power behind it.” It shows just how crucial and important this NGO bill is!

Just like the EU, the current US administration wants to push its agendas down Israel’s throat. If it doesn’t work in the conventional manner of diplomacy, it will not shy away from shamelessly suggesting pushing those agendas clandestinely by using local NGOs who are happy to assist in subverting their own government.

With friends like these — who needs enemies?

Judith Bergman is a writer and political analyst living in Israel.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom. 

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