Tel Aviv — It’s not every day that Israel’s government gets a public slap on the wrist from the U.S. government and the Anti-Defamation League.
But that’s what happened this week in response to the government’s controversial proposed bill to force non-governmental organizations funded by foreign governments to label themselves as such in official meetings and in official reports.
Known as the “NGO bill,” it has stirred up a storm at home and abroad because it targets some of Israel’s most controversial human rights organizations, including: B’tselem, a 30-year-old watchdog of Israeli military policy in the West Bank, and Breaking the Silence, which collects testimonies of Israeli soldiers critical of army conduct.
The bill’s right-wing defenders say it’s a necessary measure to increase transparency among a group of organizations that are undermining Israel’s international standing over their criticism of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. Critics on the left say the bill is part of a McCarthyist-like campaign to quash political dissent about government policy in the West Bank and toward Israel’s Arab minority. And Israeli centrists warn that passing the bill will have a boomerang effect by hurting Israel’s image as a Western democracy among its chief allies in Europe and the U.S.
That argument seemed to get confirmation when the U.S. Embassy in Israel on Monday said that Ambassador Dan Shapiro had met with Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked personally to express concern that the NGO bill would have a “chilling” effect on Israel’s civil society. The U.S. statement also rejected Shaked’s argument that the bill was similar to a U.S. law designed to register groups acting as “agents” for foreign governments.
Hours later, the ADL released a statement saying the bill would “tar” NGOs from one side of the political spectrum and warned the blow to Israel’s democracy could hurt Israel’s international legitimacy.
Still, the pointed statements from the U.S. were tame compared to the debate inside of Israel — where the crossfire between human rights groups and supporters of the bill has become front-page news, with both sides accusing the other of incitement.
Matan Peleg, the director of the right-wing group Im Tirtzu, said in an interview with Channel 2 television that human rights NGOs are essentially tools of European governments that are trying to intervene in Israeli policymaking and delegitimize Israel abroad.
“We’re talking about political power that is coming from abroad; Minister Shaked wants transparency so people will know about this,” Peleg said. The organization ran a provocative campaign late last year alleging groups like B’tselem were foreign moles that helped lone-wolf stabbers. “The European Union is trying to intervene domestically. That’s colonialism.”
Peleg was speaking hours after a fire broke out in the Jerusalem offices of B’tselem. Even though fire officials eventually said that the blaze was caused by an electrical fuse, early speculation about arson unleashed accusations by human rights activists that the fire was an act of vigilantism inspired by the anti-NGO campaign. Peace Now Director Yariv Oppenheimer went as far as to say that the government ministers were indirectly responsible because of the campaign against the NGOs.
“I have no illusions whatsoever about these NGOs, particularly Breaking Silence,” said Knesset member and former Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren. The group “says it’s about the conduct of soldiers, but it’s more about the occupation. They are using kids, who may or may not have gone through tough things in battle, and they are using them to advance an agenda which is at variance with the government.”
Despite that, Oren, a member of the coalition’s center-right Kulanu party, thinks that passing the NGO law will hurt Israel’s image abroad and because it applies solely to left wing NGOs. Speaking to The Jewish Week, he said that he’s been getting many inquiries from foreign ambassadors in Israel to discuss the draft law.
“Laws like this will put Israel on a list of countries that are less than democratic, and our shared democratic values with countries like the U.S. and the EU are a strategic interest,” he said. “The law as it is framed now will strengthen these NGOs; it will help them in fundraising. They are going to look like a victim. We don’t want to turn them into a victim.”
In recent days, an Israeli news magazine revealed that undercover right-wing activists had secretly joined the human rights groups to further expose their activities. The news magazine show “fact” broadcast footage showing how a human rights activist had turned over a Palestinian who sold West Bank lands to settlers to Palestinian authorities, who later tortured the man. The undercover activists also recorded a meeting between youth activists in Breaking the Silence and Alon Liel, a peace activist and former foreign ministry director general.
“The effort to persecute and suppress civil society organizations reminds me of dark days of the African apartheid,” Liel wrote on his Facebook page.
The human rights NGOs have been targeted by the Israeli right ever since their position papers and testimonies were cited heavily by the infamous United Nations’ Goldstone Report following the Gaza war in 2008-2009. Several incarnations of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government have tried to pass different versions of the bill, but none has ever been introduced into the parliament. NGO Monitor, a group that for years has been compiling reports on the activities and funding behind the human rights organizations, estimates that the EU gives 10 million euros annually to organizations working on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and a founder of NGO Monitor, says the issue has become a central one on the agenda of the Israeli right, with political groups vying with one another to get tough on NGOs. “The message is that we’re not going back to an open-door policy” in which foreign governments could quietly fund human rights groups.
Critics raise a number of objections. For one, they claim that the funding sources of Israeli human rights groups are already transparent for anyone to check. They allege that Israeli right-wing groups — which reportedly receive money from Jewish and Christian individuals — need to be more transparent. The draft proposal, however, doesn’t apply to organizations that are funded by foreign individuals.
“It is not transparency which is the goal of the law… the actual objective is an attempt to do harm to civil society organizations and to stand them up against a wall and label them as ‘foreign agents’ who are disloyal to the state,” according to a legal opinion by the Israel Democracy Institute. “The draft law will harm freedom of assembly, which is an important aspect of freedom of expression.”
Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the EU’s aid to Israel is notable for its focus on political issues, whereas in other countries in the Mediterranean there is more of a focus on economic development assistance. Unlike the arguments of right-wing activists that Europe had made the NGOs into a powerful force inside Israel and abroad, Zalzberg said that the human rights groups remain marginal in the Israeli political debate and that the pro-Palestinian boycott movement has achieved relatively little success in isolating Israel.
For all the noise, however, it is unclear whether the law will get passed, said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political blogger and analyst. Even though passage of an NGO bill is a plank in the platform of Shaked’s pro-settler Jewish Home party, analysts say it’s unclear just how committed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to pushing it through. And with just a 61-member majority, the opposition would need just one more coalition member along with Oren to block passage.
“It’s the same game being finessed by Netanyahu for the last seven years: some bills go forward, others go back,” Schneider said, describing the assault on left-wing NGOs as a wedge issue used in the last election.
But even if the draft is dropped, analysts say, the public debate over the NGOs in Israel will continue to smolder.