Analysis from Israel

The global firestorm that has erupted over Israel’s “NGO transparency bill” can’t be understood without knowing one crucial fact: Israel’s leading left-wing “nongovernmental” organizations are actually wholly-owned subsidiaries of the European Union and its member states. This fact, which was incontrovertibly demonstrated by a new NGO Monitor study, explains both why the bill is so important and why it is so fiercely opposed by the organizations themselves and their European funders.

As I noted in Tuesday’s post, the study examined the financial reports filed with Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations by 27 prominent organizations from 2010-2014. The groups include B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and many others actively engaged in trying to tarnish Israel’s name overseas. Overall, these groups raised more than 261 million shekels during those years; at current exchange rates, that comes to $66 million.

Of this total, fully 65 percent – some $43 million – came either directly or indirectly from foreign governments, primarily European ones. Foreign governments provided 20 of the 27 groups with over 50 percent of their funding, and three groups (Yesh Din, Terrestrial Jerusalem and Emek Shaveh) received over 90 percent of their funding from foreign governments. The largest donor was the EU, followed by Norway and Germany.

Moreover, this high level of European funding is absolutely unique, as demonstrated by a previous NGO Monitor report analyzing the years 2007-2010. That report found that the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights spends more on promoting “democracy and human rights” in “Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” than in every other country of the Mideast combined. Indeed, the EIDHR spends more in Israel alone – excluding all the grants given jointly to “Israel and the OPT” – than it does in every other Mideast country, every Asian and Pacific country, all but one African country and all but one American and Caribbean country; grants to “Israel and the OPT” together exceed those to every other country worldwide, by a very large margin.

The “transparency bill” would require any NGO that gets more than 50 percent of its funding from foreign governments to state this clearly on any report or publication it issues, and also in any written or oral contacts with public officials. The government-sponsored version would not require representatives of these groups to wear special nametags in the Knesset; that idea was raised in a private member’s bill, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it won’t be in the final legislation.

The bill’s supporters say it is similar to America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. The U.S. Embassy in Israel disputes this, insisting that FARA applies only when groups engage in activities “at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity.” That claim, however, is patently false.

FARA’s actual text says a foreign agent need not be directly controlled by a foreign principal; he can also be acting “under the direction or control” of a third party “whose activities are … financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign principal.” In other words, he could be employed by a local NGO financed “in whole or in major part” by a foreign government. Moreover, FARA says explicitly that no formal contractual relationship between the agent and the foreign principal is necessary.

Thus receiving substantial contributions from a foreign entity actually could be enough in itself to make someone a foreign agent, as long as he also engages in one of four actions specified by the law, of which the relevant one in Israel’s case is the first: engaging “within the United States in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal.”

The EU and its member states make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is one of their top foreign policy goals. That contradicts the Israeli government’s position, which opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances.

The 20 NGOs in question similarly make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is a top policy goal. B’Tselem, for instance, unambiguously titled one of its fundraising appeals “Help End the Occupation: Support B’Tselem.” Yehuda Shaul, the foreign relations director for Breaking the Silence, explicitly defined the organization in a 2014 article as “Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation.” And so forth.

In other words, these organizations are conducting political activity in Israel aimed at pressuring the elected government to adopt a key European policy goal, all while being financed “in major part” by European governments. That’s precisely the situation FARA’s provisions are meant to cover, and for good reason: When certain donors provide more than half an NGO’s funding, no explicit contract is needed to ensure the NGO’s compliance with its donors’ wishes; the threat of losing funding is sufficient.

But lest there be any doubt, even the explicit contractual relationship sometimes exists. Just this month, for instance, an EU-sponsored organization gave B’Tselem €30,000 to lobby the Knesset against the NGO transparency bill, which the EU openly opposes. In other words, it paid B’Tselem to lobby the Knesset to enact the EU’s preferred policies.

There’s also no doubt that these European donors are hostile to Israel. Norway – the largest individual government donor – is remarkably honest about this; its Foreign Ministry says explicitly, for instance, that it funds UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, because it is “a guarantor that the rights of Palestine refugees, including the right to return, are not forgotten.” The “right of return,” needless to say, is Palestinian code for eliminating the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees.

But the rest of Europe isn’t much more subtle. For instance, the EU recently adopted discriminatory labeling requirements that apply only to “Israeli-occupied” territory, but not to territory occupied by any other country. It gives higher priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it does to other conflicts that are not only far bloodier, but have swamped it with an unprecedented refugee crisis. And the funding it pours into Israeli NGOs – more, as noted, than it gives the rest of the Mideast combined – isn’t because it thinks a 67-year-old democracy actually needs more help with democracy promotion than the world’s dozens of dictatorships; it’s because this money isn’t aimed at promoting “democracy and human rights” at all, but at subverting the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government.

By now, I doubt there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t know these NGOs are wholly-owned subsidiaries of European governments; indeed, the main reason they conduct so much of their activity overseas these days is that they have little credibility left in Israel. But abroad, these groups are still viewed as Israeli organizations representing an authentic Israeli perspective, and they also benefit from the NGO “halo effect.”

That is why the transparency bill is so critical, and also why both the organizations and European governments are fighting so hard to kill it: Once these groups are required to state openly, on everything they do, that they’re primarily funded by European governments, it will be possible to expose them for what they really are – not independent Israeli NGOs with Israel’s best interests at heart, but agents of a hostile foreign power that is obsessed by Israel, discriminates against it and wishes it nothing but ill.

Originally published in Commentary on January 22, 2016

One Response to Why Israel’s NGO Bill Is Vital

  • I think the whole thrust of your argument is wrong- but I will stick to the legal side:
    This is the key part of the stature:

    (1) any person who acts as an agent, rep- resentative, employee, or servant, or any per- son who acts in any other capacity at the order, request, or under the direction or con- trol, of a foreign principal or of a person any of whose activities are directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a for- eign principal, and who directly or through any other person—
    (i) engages within the United States in po litical activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal;
    (ii) acts within the United States as a pub lic relations counsel, publicity agent, infor mation-service employee or political con-sultant for or in the interests of such foreign principal;
    (iii) within the United States solicits, col- lects, disburses, or dispenses contributions, loans, money, or other things of value for or in the interest of such foreign principal; or
    (iv) within the United States represents the interests of such foreign principal before any agency or official of the Government of the United States; and
    (2) any person who agrees, consents, assumes or purports to act as, or who is or holds him- self out to be, whether or not pursuant to contractual relationship, an agent of a foreign principal as defined in clause (1) of this sub- section.

    What you are missing here is that left wing Israelis who work for B’Tzelem or any of the other organization you refer to ( who I often disagree with ) believe in what they are doing, whether its to end the occupation or to provide better legal representation to Palestinians. They are not being directed by the foreign government, on the other hand the foreign governments agree with their actions and thus support them. This would be a reasonable law if it applied to all foreign donations including those made by individuals.

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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