Defending Israeli sovereignty or muzzling NGOs or both?

Originally published 12/01/2011

Fania Kirschenbaum has a strong personality, and she projects it with a clear and determined voice. As the Israel Beiteinu MK articulates her views she seems to listen momentarily to the votes being read out on the Knesset floor that come through on a speaker to her office. Kirschenbaum is the author of a bill currently before the Knesset that would tax foreign government contributions to certain Israeli NGOs at 45 percent.

“We were looking at the Foreign Agents Registration Act [of 1938] in the US. We translated it and brought it here. [The problem is] here these organizations, they receive money, for instance [to aid the] Goldstone [Report], or the UK gives money to organizations and the people go back to the UK and work for a boycott against Israel. They fund organizations that go to the universities in the US and work against the IDF, for instance [after Operation Cast Lead in] Gaza, and I think that is a big problem, that it hurts democracy in Israel.”

Kirschenbaum’s office is impeccably clean. Like all the parts of the Knesset’s new wing it is modern and warm.

“Anyone that is working against the country, that is the problem. It isn’t acceptable that they [Europeans] should send money and tell us what to do… for instance the Geneva Initiative [a peace lobby] used $100,000 to put up posters in Russian, they did research about Russians, they spent money to change the views of the Russians [in Israel].”

Kirschenbaum’s young spokeswoman, who served in the IDF and once had to deal with complaints against the army, raises her finger and explains the problem further.

“We are talking about foreign countries that are trying to influence and convince people inside Israel.”

The bill Kirschenbaum has crafted is one of two bills currently being debated that seek to limit foreign, particularly European government funding of Israeli NGOs. The bills follow in the footsteps of a transparency bill passed in 2010 that sought to mandate that Israeli NGOs declare where their funding was coming from.

When it the degree to which European funding, either from the EU or particular embassies in Israel, being directed toward NGOs that work for a two-state solution or criticize Israel’s human rights record was revealed, various MKs in Likud and Israel Beiteinu crafted the current bills.

It is a situation that has been greeted with consternation and apoplectic statements by Israel’s Left and by the NGOs themselves.

Haaretz, a newspaper that is considered left-wing, set aside its weekend edition and part of its website for “project black flag,” which sought to examine how Israel’s democracy was being eroded because of these new laws.

In an unpublished op-ed, Shiri Krebs, a doctoral student, lawyer and researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, denounced the recent legislation.

Follow the money?

Follow the money?

“Like Putin, Chavez and leaders of similar regimes around the world, the proponents of these bills, supported by the prime minister, seek to silence criticism of the government.”

A few dozen meters from Kirschenbaum’s office is another identical office used by Tzipi Hotovely, the 33- year-old rambunctious and loquacious Likud MK. Hotovely’s office is a buzz of activity with people coming in and out. Her staff’s work area is a controlled chaos, stacked high with newspapers and documents. Her spokesman, Ofir, a young man with a kippa, takes me out of the office; “we’ll find a quieter place to talk.”

He leads me into the meeting room for the Committee on the Status of Women.

Hotovely has partnered with fellow Likud MK Ophir Akunis to craft a bill that would limit the amount NGOs could receive from a foreign country to NIS 20,000. If Kirschenbaum’s bill represents a tax “haircut” designed to change behavior, like on cigarettes, the Akunis-Hotovely legislation represents a roundhouse to the face.

Ofir, Hotovely’s spokesman, is a quick-witted, fast-talking young man who is passionate about his ideology and is eager to explain the logic behind the NGO bills.

“Let’s say Israel will support an NGO in Jordan that will [advocate] a revolution and creating a Palestinian state there. You would all say it is undemocratic and that we are interfering with Jordan’s internal policies. That is what we all say. Why should the European Union have influence on Israeli policy? It is undemocratic that the nation of Israel chooses Right, but we are pulled to the Left due to foreign money.”

Hotovely is up all night voting on a succession of bills, but she gets up early the next day and in a short conversation via speaker in her car she also chimes in with why the bills are necessary.

“I think this is one of the most democratic bills and laws that will be passed in Israel. The idea of democracy is that citizens can say what they want and not have the international community putting their hands in our pockets and using economic force.”

Akunis was going in for surgery last week. From his hospital bed he still wanted to explain the urgency of this legislation, in a sort of circumspect way.

“I was born in Tel Aviv, I am 38. It is my first session of the Knesset, in the Likud… I am a man of the Likud, I believe truly in [Menachem] Begin, I even received the Begin prize in 2003.”

After becoming aware of the issue of European funding of Israeli NGOs he sought to find a way to prevent it.

“First of all, the first initiative, it is my law. I thought about a law that will limit the money for these NGOs such as Peace Now, Ir Amim, Breaking the Silence, because I thought when suggesting the law, during the summer session [of the Knesset], that it is not logical that a foreign country, like Norway or Holland, will give money all the time to an NGO, to political NGOs in Israel. I want to be clear on the political aspect. It interferes with our sovereignty. Israel is not doing the same thing, we are not giving money from our budget to NGOs in Holland, Switzerland, Norway.”

THE ORIGINS of the NGO bills go back several years and are connected to the research and activities of two organizations; NGO Monitor and Im Tirtzu.

NGO Monitor was founded in 2001 and is headed by Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar- Ilan University.

“Let’s pick up from the [UN] Durban forum [World Conference Against Racism] of September 2001. The NGO attack [on Israel], the focus on Israel which takes place to a very significant degree through Israeli NGOs, funded by European governments, began with Durban and has been going on continuously since, without much public notice,” says Steinberg.

He argues that it was primarily the Goldstone Report, released in September 2009, the attempts to issue arrest warrants for Israeli officials, such as Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, by various European countries and the Gaza flotilla of 2010 that brought the issue into the public domain.

“All of that process became a critical mass and it became an issue on the agenda about two years ago roughly…. Particularly in the Knesset, you see a lot of questions about ‘who are these people, where do they get their money and resources and what can we do about it?’”

What followed was a series of bills that were drafted last year aimed at creating transparency, removing the tax-exempt status of NGOs and holding a commission of inquiry on their funding. What came out of those proposals was the so-called Elkin Bill, passed in February 2010, which forced NGOs to report funding received from foreign governments.

The Elkin Bill was of such interest to foreign governments that a confidential cable sent by the US embassy was titled “Knesset considers controversial NGO legislation to register as foreign agents.” In the cable, released by Wikileaks, the political officer at the US embassy noted: “Many NGOs were concerned with the possible effects of the draft legislation, which they decried in the press as part of a trend of delegitimizing the NGOs that criticize Israel, particularly those which provided testimony for the Goldstone Report.”

In an interview with Jessica Montell, director of B’Tselem, the embassy officer wrote that “Montell estimated her NIS 9 million budget is 95 percent funded from abroad, mostly from European countries.”

AFTER NGO MONITOR had done a lot of the legwork in researching and showing how Israeli NGOs, particularly those involved in self-described civil society, human rights and peace work were being funded, the debate passed to a student-led group called Im Tirtzu. The group, which takes its name from Zionist founder Theodor Herzl’s slogan, “If you will it,” was founded in 2007 by Ronen Shoval and Erez Tadmor, who describe the organization as an “extra-parliamentary” group.

Shoval is now working on a PhD but because he fears retaliation from left-wing professors who oppose his activism he prefers not to say where. He describes a gradual maturing of the group’s work, from illustrating how the New Israel Fund had funded groups connected with the Goldstone Report, to talking to members of the Knesset.

“We wanted people to understand that in the US $2m. [in funding] doesn’t affect the debate, but in Israel that small amount of money has much greater influence….We believe the total amount of European funding is more than twice the NIS 40m. that has been reported in the media. We believe the passage of these laws will defend our democracy from this outside influence.

“At the end of the day democracies cannot accept that other countries are involved in supporting only one side of the political spectrum. If it was about creating a public discourse they should have supported both sides…. Every country that respects itself and its sovereignty should put an end to this kind of involvement.”

Shoval is adamant that Israel is today fighting a struggle as symbolic as the War of Independence in 1948, a sort of new liberation from European neo-colonialism.

Tadmor, who is an MA student at Bar-Ilan University, stresses that Im Tirtzu’s opposition to certain types of NGOs in Israel stems from the fact that these groups represent only a tiny percentage of society but wield a great deal of influence on behalf of foreign governments.

“In the relationship between countries and governments, in a normal relationship, governments do not interfere in what is happening in other countries’ internal affairs. Just as it is not legitimate for Israel to support the Basques or Catalans in Spain, or that Israel will finance British citizens to give independence to parts of Ireland or Scotland [so it is not legitimate for them to do similar things here].”

Tadmor sees an irony in the fact that Europeans focus their financing of human rights groups in Israel, while there are numerous dictatorships in the Middle East that, according to him, go relatively unopposed by Europe.

Im Tirtzu focused on legislators from Likud and Israel Beiteinu because they believed their ideas would be received most warmly among those parties, that had been given a strong mandate in the 2009 elections. They also strategically focused on MKs who were not only new to the Knesset, but those considered close the leaders of their party.

Akunis has long been a media adviser to Netanyahu and Kirschenbaum is considered a party insider, having served as her party’s general director in the 2009 elections. Akunis is also considered by some as an especially active legislator who knows how to move laws through committee. It is not clear where Hotovely fits into the picture, except that she is viewed as young, energetic and from the right wing of the Likud. Older Likud party members like Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin have often expressed opposition or consternation with attempts to curtail funding to NGOs.

THE NGO bills currently before the Knesset were passed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which means they received support from the governing coalition. However, soon after they ran into a wave of criticism, both from within the ranks of Likud and from intellectuals in Israel.

One of those who passionately opposes the bills is Amir Fuchs, a PhD candidate in law at the Hebrew University and longtime assistant to Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer at the Israel Democracy Institute. In my discussions with Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, about who could best articulate the problems with the NGO bill, he immediately suggested Fuchs.

“I see it as a strong erosion of democracy. There will be a paralyzing effect on NGOs and human rights organizations in Israel if they pass. This will take away the financial basis of these organizations. This is a violent erosion of freedom of speech and assembly, because people use these organizations for their speech and because these are watchdogs of democracy and they watch where human rights are violated by the state… there is no Western democracy that has laws like this. There are lots of states that have laws like this and they are not democratic the way we define democracy. They have laws like this in Russia, Venezuela and Afghanistan,” explains Fuchs.

He also thinks there are differences between the two bills.

“Akunis is focusing on the purposes and nature of the association [because his bill only goes after those defined as ‘political’]. In a way it is worse because it takes more of the [NGOs’] financial basis. In a way it is less draconian because it wouldn’t hurt every association in Israel. Fania’s law would affect every association that doesn’t get money [or support] from the [Israeli] government, so it would affect a lot more.”

Fuchs stresses that Israel already has laws that can break up an NGO if it violates Israeli law, and he sees the existing NGOs as doing important work.

“I think we have a moral army, but in a few instances [the IDF] takes soldiers to trial because they do things that are unlawful, and these associations help to find these soldiers and it makes us more democratic. If you think about freedom of speech, I see no argument that we should prevent this money from coming into Israel. Let’s assume that we decide that we don’t want to be affected by foreign powers. Why is [there] this division [in the bills] between a foreign country and private donations, such as from extreme religious organizations in the US that fund right-wing groups?”

Fuchs also objects to the view that these groups interfere in the politics of Israeli democracy.

“We have funding of party laws and there are very restrictive laws about how parties can get their money. But a movement for a cause can get money from any country.”

Privately those who work or have worked in Israel for European governments express wonder that Israel is so worried by such insignificant funding when one considers that the EU gives almost 600 million euros a year to the Palestinian Authority. They also stress that these NGOs are quite small and that as part of Israel’s relationship with the EU it agreed to support human rights, and the EU’s grants are helping it fulfill this obligation.

The Knesset members say that they are merely trying to create an Israeli version of the American law that prevents foreign agents from operating in the country. That act, passed in 1938 to identify German propaganda in the US, described an agent of a foreign power as “any individual or organization that acts at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a foreign principle.”

The act only forces the agents to register, rather than curtailing their financing. In 2010 there were 378 organizations registered under the act.

Kirschenbaum stresses that what her law really does is take away the tax-free operations of organizations that are working against the government’s interest.

“If, for instance, the government will decide that the Workers Hotline is doing work that is acceptable, then they wouldn’t have this tax on foreign government funding… That way foreign money can continue to fund hospitals, Magen David Adom or universities.”

The three MKs behind the laws are confident they will pass eventually, even though they have been shelved temporarily by the government due to an appeal by minister without portfolio Bennie Begin. Akunis says he will continue working through the winter session to bring a vote on his law and have it implemented by 2013. Kirschenbaum believes there will be some changes to her law and it may be combined with the second one before it is passed.

“I told the prime minister: ‘Don’t prevent public discussion of such an important law,’ give us the opportunity to discuss it,” says Hotovely.

The Delegation of the EU to the State of Israel responds to ‘The Jerusalem Post’

• What is the EU’s position on funding foreign NGOs, particularly in Israel?

Supporting projects carried out by civil society organizations is an important element of the European Union’s relations with third countries and an expression of its values… The European Union believes that democracy and human rights are universal values that should be promoted around the world and this plays an integral role in its relations with all third countries…The joint EU-Israel Action plan, which is the practical framework for relations, states that the sides will: “Work together to promote the shared values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.”

The EU’s main human rights program – The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) – is a worldwide program. The budget of EIDHR for the period 2007- 2013 is 1.04 billion euros, which will fund some 1,500 projects worldwide. By way of comparison, the budget of the annual EIDHR call for proposals open to Israeli NGOs is 1.2 million euros.

• How does the EU mission view the current bills before the Knesset in light of the assertion by certain MKs that this EU funding is a form of violation of Israel’s internal affairs?

The EU believes that Israel’s vibrant civil society is one of its most important assets both at home and internationally. At the same time, the EU maintains full respect for Israel’s sovereignty and of the absolute right of the Knesset to pass legislation concerning Israel’s internal affairs.

• Can the EU mission articulate not only the importance it places on supporting these civil society NGOs, but also explain how criteria are involved?

Under EIDHR, an open call for proposals is published which contains defined country priorities based on EU policies on human rights, such as gender equality and rights of minors. Project submission also requires considerable documentation attesting to the legal status and financial records of the NGO… NGOs whose projects are supported by the European Commission need to be fully compliant with rules on reporting and auditing… Because the EU fully supports diversity of opinion and the right of expression as long as this is in line with its fundamental democratic principles, it does not necessarily agree with positions expressed by the NGO whether inside or outside the project framework.

• Can you provide us with an estimate of your mission’s overall funding of these NGOs in the past year or years? Overall funding for all human rights projects amounts to less than 5 percent of total funding of Israeli bodies. Other fields supported in Israel include R&D, higher education programs, support for local authorities.

All projects funded by the EU in Israel are clearly listed on the EU Delegation’s website:

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