Benjamin Netyanyahu pushes for bill that critics say will persecute Israel's NGOs over international funding

The legislation does not apply to private donations from abroad, a main source of funding for right-wing NGOs

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed for the passage of a controversial bill requiring non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to declare on promotional and official material if they receive most of their funds from foreign governments. 

Mr Netanyahu said such labelling was “correct, democratic and necessary”, as the Knesset prepared to vote on the bill. 

The legislation will mostly affect the left-wing and dovish NGOs, which are critical of the government and the occupation of the West Bank. It does not apply to private donations from abroad, a main source of funding for right-wing NGOs. It may also see personnel from foreign-funded NGOs required to wear special identification badges when they are in the Knesset.

The bill has been criticised by rights groups, and earlier this month the US ambassador, Daniel Shapiro, issued a statement noting US “concerns” about the legislation.

A leading Israeli analyst said that there was no precedent for it in any democratic country. Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute compared the bill to steps taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin to silence NGOs.

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Benjamin Netanyahu said such labelling was “correct, democratic and necessary” (Reuters)

“Laws that go against NGOs and treat them like traitors are something that goes with regimes like the ones in Russia and Venezuela,” said Mr Fuchs. “The laws now in effect in Russia and Venezuela are harsher, but we don’t find a similar law in any democracy.”

The bill, drafted by the hard-right Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, specifies that NGOs receiving most of their funds from foreign governments declare this “in a manner that is outstanding to the eye”. 

In a recent article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ms Shaked wrote that the law was necessary because foreign governments were pouring enormous sums into NGOs and the money was being used to interfere in Israeli prerogatives and to delegitimise the Jewish state. 

“Often those countries are not at all aware of the fact that the money they are sending is used by the bodies it is sent to for the purpose of weakening Israel’s moral claim and presenting it as a country that is prima facie committing a violation of international law,” she wrote. 

Mr Netanyahu backed her in remarks to journalists before a recent cabinet meeting. “I don’t understand how a demand for greater transparency is anti-democratic,” he said. “In a democracy we need to know who is funding these organisations from the right, the left, the top to bottom.”

The NGOs counter that transparency is not the real issue, since they are already obliged to file quarterly reports on all of their foreign government donations and that this information is posted on the internet for all to see. 

“This is about delegitimisation and silencing criticism, about turning the NGOs into foreign agents and enemies in the eyes of the public,” said Debbie Gild-Hayo, policy advocate for the Association for Citizens’ Rights in Israel.

Russia’s Foreign Agents law, passed in 2012, requires NGOs that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register as foreign agents and to declare their status on all their official statements. 

Last May, Mr Putin followed this up with the Undesirable Organisations law, which allows the Prosecutor General and foreign ministry to ban selected NGOs.

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