Bowing to left-wing and international pressure, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently quashed several bills he had previously supported. Last week, he killed a reform of the judicial appointments process; this week, he reportedly froze two bills to limit foreign governments’ contributions to non-governmental organizations. Yet while the first decision is an unequivocal loss for Israeli democracy, the second could potentially prove a boon.
The judicial appointments bill would have required Supreme Court nominees to be vetted by the Knesset Constitution Committee. Far from being “undemocratic,” as its opponents charge, this reform – as I explained in July – would have corrected a major flaw in Israel’s democratic system that no other Western democracy shares.
The NGO bills, in contrast, really were undemocratic, though their purpose was not. Netanyahu’s decision thus gives their sponsors a chance to correct their flaws.
The bills were meant to address a genuine problem: Foreign governments really are spending huge sums on blatantly anti-Israel activity. A document obtained by Makor Rishon, for instance, showed that Britain’s government gave £600,000 to Israeli NGOs in 2010 – six times what it gave to NGOs in all Arab countries combined (excluding Iraq). Overall, according to NGO Monitor, European governments give more to Israeli NGOs – $75 million to $100 million a year – than to NGOs in all other Middle Eastern countries combined. That Europe spends more to promote “civil society” in the region’s only democracy than it does in the entire undemocratic Arab world is a priori suspicious; European governments don’t give comparable sums to NGOs in other veteran democracies. And indeed, a look at their recipients shows they aren’t trying to support Israeli democracy, but to undermine it.
Take, for instance, the Israeli Arab advocacy organization Adalah, which gets funding from the European Union and the governments of Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and Holland. One of Adalah’s avowed goals is to eliminate the Jewish state – a goal clearly not shared by most Israelis. For instance, its proposed “Democratic Constitution” demands that Israel grant a “right of return” to millions of Palestinians, which would eradicate the Jewish state demographically and, until that happens, it demands that Arab parties be allowed to veto all government decisions, thus stripping the state of its right to self-defense (since these parties invariably oppose military action).
One can imagine how, say, America would feel if Europe funded American NGOs that openly advocated a Communist takeover. For Europe to be funding Israeli NGOs that seek an Arab takeover of the Jewish state is equally unacceptable.
Or take B’Tselem, the Israeli NGO most frequently cited by the infamous Goldstone Report (Adalah was second), whose donors include the EU and the British and Norwegian governments. B’Tselem’s original goals – monitoring alleged Israeli abuse of Palestinians and seeking to remedy it by lobbying the Israeli government and Israeli public opinion or suing in Israeli courts – were completely legitimate in a democratic state. But the organization didn’t stop there.
Instead, it gave false information (compare its casualty figures to this) to a “fact-finding mission” created by the notoriously anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council, whose sole purpose was to put Israel in the dock for its 2009 war with Hamas in Gaza. Indeed, the council didn’t even await the mission’s conclusions; the resolution that proposed the mission had already condemned Israel for what it termed “systematic destruction of Palestinian infrastructure” and “the targeting of civilians and medical facilities and staff.” The resolution also instructed the mission to investigate Israel alone, giving Hamas a pass. Unsurprisingly, the mission ultimately recommended indicting Israel for “war crimes” in the International Criminal Court (though its lead author has since repudiated this conclusion).
If Israel were funding British NGOs that sought to get British soldiers indicted in the ICC, Britain would be justifiably outraged. And Israel has every right to be the same.
In democratic states, genuine human rights groups don’t need foreign governments to fund them; they draw support from their own citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, has some 500,000 paid members and various domestic donors; its foreign funding is negligible. But when such groups replace genuine human rights promotion with attempts to undermine their own countries, their domestic support plummets. That’s precisely why the ACLU’s Israeli counterpart, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, has recently seen its membership fall from 5,000 to less than 800. Hence the very fact that organizations like B’Tselem and Adalah are almost entirely foreign-funded is itself a warning signal.
In short, legislative action on this issue is urgently needed. Yet both the proposed bills were disastrously flawed.
The first bill sought to cap donations by foreign governments and organizations to “political” NGOs. This is clearly unenforceable, since there’s no objective way to decide whether a group is “political” or nonpolitical: I might consider B’Tselem and Adalah political, but their supporters consider them apolitical human-rights groups. This bill would thus almost certainly be declared unconstitutionally vague.
The second, in contrast, proposed a clear and easily enforceable rule:
Donations from foreign governments and organizations would be taxed at a
rate of 45 percent unless the recipient is also funded by Israel’s
government. Yet this blatantly violates freedom of speech: Essentially,
it says that if you support a cause the government favors, you can raise
money freely, but if you support a cause the government opposes, the
state will confiscate 45 percent of every dollar you raise. That
disproportionately harms speech the government opposes, and would thus
also probably be declared unconstitutional.
The only proper way to crack down on foreign funding of problematic NGOs
is to ban all NGOs, without exception, from accepting money from
foreign governments, or from foreign organizations funded by foreign
governments. Since most foreign government money – 80 percent, according
to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – goes to “political” NGOs, such a
ban would hurt very few genuine charities. The government could choose
to compensate these groups by upping its own funding, but if not, this
an acceptable price to pay to protect Israel from blatant foreign
Only a law that applies equally to all NGOs can pass the democratic
test. And that is the law the Knesset ought to pass.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.