Israel’s Transparency Law would expose NGOs’ foreign government sponsors.
The US State Department is criticizing Israel’s proposed “Transparency Law,” suggesting that Israelis should not know when foreign governments are influencing their domestic politics.
If enacted, the current version of the Transparency Law would deem an Israeli Non-Governmental Organization (“NGO”) a foreign agent if it receives more than 50% of its budget from foreign government sources. The NGO would then be required to disclose that it is a foreign agent in publications and political tracts, and to disclose foreign donors.
The impetus behind the Transparency Law is Israel’s increasingly hostile NGO community, such NGO’s propaganda value to Israel’s enemies, and their overwhelmingly non-Israeli financing. Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University and NGO Monitor has explained the problem:
Although NGOs have always been significant actors in Israeli politics and society, in the past fifteen years, a network of about 30 groups claiming to promote human rights and peace have received large grants from the European Union and individual governments. The scale of this funding, with annual budgets upwards of $1 million, as well as the extreme secrecy and impact, are unique; there are no parallels in relations between democracies. Although the EU has funded a few U.S.-based groups that oppose the death penalty, and there are some other isolated examples, Israeli NGOs are specifically and intentionally targeted. Imagine the response if Europe were to provide $2 billion–the per capita equivalent–to fringe American NGOs focusing on controversial issues, such as abortion or immigration.
In Western Europe, NGOs are important vehicles for exercising the normative or “soft power” that post-Cold War officials have defined as the central dimension of their foreign policy. And among Europeans dealing with the Middle East, support for Israeli NGOs seeking to overturn the government’s policies in the “occupied territories” is an effective form of influence. The money gives a handful of activists in each NGO, many of whom are unsuccessful politicians, the resources to write reports, hold press conferences, and travel the world promoting their strongly held opinions. Their allegations, including charges of “war crimes,” are often quoted, without verification, in official European documents and used to justify punitive policies, such as the recent EU product labeling guidelines.
The activities of a small fringe group known as “Breaking the Silence” (BtS), which are the center of the current Israeli debate, provide an important example. BtS has been operating in Israel for over a decade, criticizing the IDF, triggering only limited debates. With a budget of over a million dollars, more than half from European governments, seven or eight activists travel the world with accusations against the IDF, speaking at conferences and holding photo exhibitions. Their claims, although based on anonymous and often second-hand “testimonies,” are seen as automatically credible simply because they are Israelis, and are welcomed by audiences on university campuses, and among anti-war church charities and similar groups.
If anything, Steinberg understated the issue. Moshe Dann wrote in the Jerusalem Post in 2012:
Reports prepared by NGO-Monitor, the Institute for Strategic Studies and Im Tirzu, based on financial records filed with Rasham Ha’amutot, which approves non-profit organizations, focused primarily on funds received by controversial NGOs particularly from foreign governments. The full picture, however, reveals that the NGOs are almost entirely and exclusively funded by foreign groups – directly and indirectly.
In 2010, for example, Breaking the Silence received about NIS 3.1 million; 1.5 million from the EU, UK and Spanish government. The rest came from Oxfam, the New Israel Fund (NIF), Dutch, German, Danish and Irish church organizations, and even NDC, the Palestinian NGO which promotes Boycott/Divest/Sanctions (BDS) campaigns.
In 2010, B’Tselem received about NIS 9.3 million; 1.75 million from Norway, EU and Britain. The rest came from Dutch, Irish, Swedish, German, Danish church organizations, NDC, George Soros’ Open Society, NIF and private foundations.
In other words, the “Israeli” organizations that criticize Israel the most vehemently are not Israeli at all – they are domestic propaganda arms of hostile foreign powers. Giving an organization the imprimatur of being an “Israeli NGO” when it is funded by Israel’s foreign antagonists does not contribute to democracy in any way, but this Israeli veneer allows the foreign donor to hide its identity and gives the propaganda a false legitimacy.
— Middle East Monitor (@MiddleEastMnt) January 13, 2016
As Steinberg explained:
the proposed legislation is similar in spirit and purpose to US Foreign Agent Registration Act (1938), and the rules adopted last year in the House of Representatives, requiring witnesses testifying before a committee in a “nongovernmental capacity” to disclose “the amount and country of origin of any payment or contract related to the subject matter of the hearing originating with a foreign government.” Such regulations seek to prevent foreign governments from secretive and undue influence over democratic processes, outside diplomatic channels. (No Washington Post editorial has compared Congress to Putin’s Russia).
Lori Lowenthal Marcus adds that the Transparency Law is far less onerous than the Foreign Agent Registration Act, as it is clearer and less punitive:
The U.S. law . . . differs in that it contains criminal sanctions: up to five years in prison and/or $10,000 for violations. The U.S. law also imposes exacting and onerous reporting requirements. Finally, the test for whether the Israeli law will apply is a simple test of arithmetic — more than 50% or less — so no ambiguity clouds anyone’s judgment or creates uncertainty about liability. The U.S. law, by contrast, uses ambiguous words and tests which are far more likely to lead to over-broad applications and chilling of speech than does the straightforward Israeli proposal’s standard.
Despite Israel’s plain need for more transparency in its NGO community, its measured approach to the problem, and comparable U.S. law, the U.S. State Department has “expressed concerns with Israeli authorities about this law.”
The obvious conclusion is that the State Department does not want Israeli NGOs’ foreign sponsors exposed. One possible explanation – and this is only speculation at this point – is that the State Department or the Obama Administration is concerned about what donations from the U.S. government will be exposed if the Transparency Law passes.
For the Obama Administration actively opposed Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election last year:
Republican strategist John McLaughlin, who worked for the Likud campaign, said Obama’s role during the Israeli election was larger than reported in the US. McLaughlin noted that the anti-Netanyahu organization V15 was guided by former Obama political operative Jeremy Bird.
“What was not well reported in the American media is that President Obama and his allies were playing in the election to defeat Prime Minister Netanyahu,” McLaughlin told AM 970 in New York in an interview highlighted on The Hill. “There was money moving that included taxpayer U.S. dollars, through non-profit organizations. And there were various liberal groups in the United States that were raising millions to fund a campaign called V15 against Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
McLaughlin also cited an effort “to organize the [Israeli] Arabs into one party and teach them about voter turnout.”
“The State Department people in the end of January, early February, expedited visas for [Israeli] Arab leaders to come to the United States to learn how to vote,” McLaughlin said. “There were people in the United States that were organizing them to vote in one party so they would help the left-of-center candidate, Herzog, that the Obama administration favored.”
President Obama and the State Department have precious little political capital in Israel after years of undermining Israeli interests, attacking the Prime Minister personally and lying about the Iran deal. The revelation that then-Secretary of State Clinton seriously considered fomenting Palestinian to create leverage with which to force Israeli concessions only underscores the point.
In this atmosphere, it is unlikely the State Department will have any influence on consideration of the Transparency Law. Nevertheless, this is yet another instance of a blatant double-standard in which Israel is expected to expose itself in ways that no other country would countenance.DONATE
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