The NGO Transparency Bill: A Debate over Democracy and Sovereignty

MK Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home), one of the people behind the bill’s creation said, “Non-transparent channels have been developed in Israel over the past decade for the benefit of foreign countries seeking to advancing their interests in Israel. All channels through which other countries seek to intervene in Israel’s internal affairs must be transparent and open.”

As the NGO Transparency Bill passed in the Knesset on Monday night by a vote of 57 to 48, debates centered around the values of transparency, national sovereignty and democracy.

Supporters of the law, which is entitled Transparency Requirements for Parties Supported by Foreign State Entities, argued that it helped shed more light on foreign donations to Israeli NGOs.

“Since relations between countries are based on transparency and reciprocity, diplomatic channels were created through which countries communicate and work with one another,” said MK Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home), one of the people behind the bill’s creation.

“Non-transparent channels have been developed in Israel over the past decade for the benefit of foreign countries seeking to advancing their interests in Israel,” he added. “All channels through which other countries seek to intervene in Israel’s internal affairs must be transparent and open.”

The bill requires NGOs that receive more than half their income from foreign governments to file an annual report with the Justice Ministry’s NGO Registrar, which will publish a list of all such NGOs.

The NGOs must also include the information in their published reports and share it with civil servants and elected officials.

Smotrich believes that once foreign donations to Israeli NGOs are made public, Israeli citizens will be able to make informed decisions and form educated opinions about the relevant issues.

“An organization that is primarily financed by foreign political entities will have to publish (that information) in any publication or proceeding involving an official source,” Smotrich said. “The citizen or official can then decide whether he feels it is legitimate or not.”

Constitution Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Jewish Home), who brought the bill to the Knesset for its final reading, said that it would also help prospective foreign donors to make more informed decisions.

“A (foreign government) does not always know exactly which organization is receiving its money. If it knew, it might not donate to some of the organizations because it would not wish to be involved in some of the issues that some groups deal with,” Slomiansky told the Knesset.

The bill’s proponents also argued that it helped protect Israel from indirect foreign intervention in internal affairs. The bill’s preface says that it seeks “to deal with the phenomenon of NGOs who represent in Israel, in a non-transparent manner, the outside interests of foreign states while pretending to be domestic organizations concerned with the interests of the Israeli public.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that the bill allowed Israel to protect itself just as any other country would.

“Imagine that Israel were to fund extra-parliamentary organizations in Britain that supported Brexit,” Shaked told the Knesset. “Our ambassador would be called in immediately for a dressing-down because Britain has national self-respect.”

“We have accepted (foreign intervention) so far with bowed heads,” she added. “Our heads are bowed no longer.”

Many opposition MKs objected to the bill, saying that it undermined democracy and stifled dissent.

“(The bill) symbolizes the budding fascism that is rising and flourishing in Israeli society and makes a mockery of the right to organize, which is a sacred founding principle of a democratic society,” said opposition leader Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Zionist Union’s Knesset faction.

MK Michal Rozin of Meretz accused the government of “political persecution.” “Only a ludicrous government that cannot look reality in the eye uses democratic terms to cover up political persecution,” she said. “The purpose of this law is the targeted killing of a list of specific organizations that are identified with the Israeli left wing.”

Most NGOs that are expected to be affected by the law are groups such as Peace Now and B’Tselem, which identify with many of the Israeli left’s positions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The European Union, a significant funder of these organizations, criticized the bill shortly after it was passed, claiming that it “risks undermining” Israel’s democratic character.

Peace Now officials said that they intended to challenge the law’s legality in Israel’s High Court of Justice. Minister Shaked said that any effort to have the law overturned by Israel’s High Court of Justice went against democratic principles.

“Remember that you fought over this bill with parliamentary tools,” she told the MKs who opposed the bill. “That’s how you fight in a healthy democracy. You don’t fail here and then run to the High Court.”

Professor Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, an organization that researches and reports on foreign donations to Israeli NGOs, does not expect the bill to change the status quo all that much.

“The law will not bring major changes and will not prevent NGOs, which are already obligated to report on foreign government donations, from receiving money,” he said.

He suggested more open dialogue between parliamentarians from Israel and the European Union.

“The establishment of working groups with Knesset members and European parliamentarians to oversee the allocations would enable both parties to voice their concerns and to devise new policies,” he said.

Jonathan Benedek (TPS)

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