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ISRAEL: NGOs must disclose foreign governmental funding, new bill says

February 22, 2011 | 10:00 am

A new bill passed Monday in parliament obliges Israeli non-governmental organizations to report funds received from foreign governments. The NGOs will have to provide updated information on a quarterly basis, post the information on their websites and state such funding in any public campaign.

The logic behind the new law, which enjoyed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support, is the need for transparency, according to lawmaker Zeev Elkin, coalition chairman and co-sponsor of the bill. Elkin told Israel Radio it is the right of a democratic country and its public to know when foreign governmental elements pour money into groups with the intention of influencing policy and internal politics. It is also the right of the other countries' citizens to know whether their own tax money is going too, he said. According to NGO Monitor, governmental bodies such as the European Union pour millions into various Israeli groups. The money doesn't always go where it should and groups often overstep their stated missions.

As an example, Elkin said nearly all the Israeli bodies that provided "the false materials" for the Goldstone report received money from foreign governments, which were then quick to adopt the report they in fact funded. The Goldstone report resulted from South African jurist Judge Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict. His report, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2009, found strong evidence that Israel had committed war crimes in the Gaza strip. The report was fiercely rejected and bitterly denounced in Israel.

However, the Israeli Defense Force itself has recognized on occasion the contribution of rights organizations to investigating misconduct

The law doesn't oblige NGOs to expose their private foreign funding, allowing private donors to remain private. Most hospitals, universities and charities rely on generous support. This comes from well-known philanthropists but also from people who do not want the publicity -- perhaps in keeping with the Jewish principle of matan baseter, or giving discreetly. But many wealthy individuals make considerable donations to other organizations that also seek influence on Israeli policy, and these will not be revealed.

Elkin said the bill is not political and the law will apply equally to NGOs from the right and left in Israeli politics. But critics balk at he apolitical claim, noting that most NGOs receiving funding from foreign governmental sources are liberal and left-leaning, while many bodies enjoying funding from private donors overseas are conservative or right-wing.

Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, said this new transparency will only apply to left-wing organizations, some of which are supported by foreign governments, but not to right-wing organizations like the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella group. "The logic behind the new bill is simple, to de-legitimize the left-wing organizations and portray them as foreign agents. But no one will ever know who's pulling the strings of foundations receiving far bigger support from evangelical organizations in the U.S. or tycoons like Irwin Moskowitz," Oppenheimer said in a radio interview. This is an attempt to use the right-wing domination of the Knesset "to silence political public debate," Oppenheimer said.

The controversial law obviates an even more controversial proposal. A few weeks ago, lawmakers pushed for a parliamentary investigation committee to look into the funding of Israeli rights organizations. The proposal, in mid-approval, was tabled by legislators from Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Israel's hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and drew sharp criticism from both inside Israel and out. The opposition decried the move as a witch hunt against left-wing organizations and warned of deepening McCarthyism, but government elements sounded alarm bells too. Senior Likud ministers such as Benny Begin denounced the move. "It's dark here," said Begin, a vanishing breed combining a political hawk with a liberal democrat. Lieberman dismissed him and other Likud seniors ministers such as Dan Meridor as "feinschmeckers", a term he borrowed from Yiddish and meaning (in this case) finicky, high-browed fusspots.

But as more feinschmeckers presented themselves, the vote on the parliamentary investigation was postponed until it was side-swiped by Monday's vote on a bill that had been long in the pipeline. Earlier this week, Netanyahu reportedly told Likud faction members the parliamentary investigation bill would cause Israel more harm than good. Political commentators note that Netanyahu's support of the new law also plays into an ongoing political power struggle between him and Lieberman, as the two are increasingly locking horns on different issues. Many of the more controversial legislative initiatives in parliament this year -- on sensitive issues such as conversion, citizenship and loyalty -- have come from Lieberman's party, causing Israel no small amount of embarrassment.

According to media reports, the attorney general may decided in coming days to indict Lieberman -- subject to a hearing -- in a corruption investigation that has been dragging on for years. To this, a columnist in Yisrael Hayom, a free daily Hebrew newspaper, recently noted that a decision by the attorney general in Lieberman's case would have a calming effect on the legislative hyperactivity.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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