The Frenemies Gambit

(Photo: AP/Dan Balilty)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 10, 2016.

When a human-rights group points to government abuses, what should the country’s leaders do? Let’s see. They could ignore it. They could debate the facts. They could even investigate and change policies.

Or they could label it a tool of foreign powers.

I’m sorry, but not surprised, to report that the last option is the one being taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his closest coalition partners.

The smear campaign has gone on for years. Sometime late on Monday night, rhetoric turned into legislation, as Netanyahu’s coalition pushed the so-called Transparency Law through parliament. More widely known as the NGO Law, ostensibly it merely tightens financial reporting rules for nongovernmental organizations in Israel. In reality, the law is a transparent bid to mark some of the country’s main human-rights groups—including those that report on and challenge government actions in the West Bank and Gaza—as borderline treasonous. This is a classic tactic for suppressing democratic dissent: Transform it, in public perception, into the yowling of wild beasts outside the threatened tribal camp.

The new law applies narrowly to NGOs that receive half or more of their funds from foreign governments, or bodies such as the European Union or the United Nations. It requires them to call attention to such funding on their websites, in their publications, and in their advertisements, including billboards and posters in public places. Likewise for any correspondence with civil servants and elected officials. The Justice Ministry’s Registrar of Non-Profits will also post a list of such organizations on its website.

That may look reasonable, until you dig two or three millimeters beneath the surface. The law doesn’t refer to groups acting on behalf of foreign governments, but to ones getting funds from governmental or international bodies for any purpose, including humanitarian. A grant from UNICEF counts, or from the German government’s institute for cultural exchange and conflict resolution. And existing law already required nonprofits to report every quarter on donations from foreign governments, and every year on any overseas gifts of more than about $5,000. Transparency already exists. The point of the new law isn’t transparency; it is to create the impression that an overseas source means you are serving foreign interests.

As it happens, lots of Israeli nonprofits get money from abroad. For better and worse, this small country draws the attention of people around the world, and sometimes their money too. Right-wing Israeli groups get major donations from private individuals, organizations, and corporations abroad. A Haaretz investigation published last December found that American donors gave more than $220 million to West Bank settlements over the five years of 2009 through 2013, money that was spent on everything from schools to “supporting the families of convicted Jewish terrorists.” Money is often channeled through American organizations, which shows up as the donors in Israeli financial reporting—shielding the original donors. The new law doesn’t mention private donations (even when those donations get a government subsidy, in the form of tax-exempt status in the United States). So much for transparency.

Then there’s the law’s 50 percent threshold. The apparent purpose is to exempt all sorts of staid, mainstream Israeli institutions that get a smaller portion of their budget from foreign governmental sources—for instance, universities and research institutions that get an array of generous grants from individual European governments and from the European Union. Requiring them to blare those sources of income might convey the message that those countries are actually quite supportive of Israel—which is not at all what the new law’s authors want.

When the NGO bill was in committee, the Justice Ministry provided a list of organizations to which the law would apply. There are about two dozen altogether, virtually all dealing with human rights—inside Israel, and particularly in the West Bank and Gaza. They include B’Tselem, which has monitored rights violations in occupied territory since the 1980s; the Public Committee Against Torture; and Breaking the Silence, which collects testimony from Israelis on their military service in the West Bank and in combat in Gaza. Breaking the Silence has been in first place in recent years as a target of purportedly patriotic fury—not despite its activists’ and witnesses’ service to their country, but because of it. The new law is designed to fit these organizations, and to produce suspicion of them.

In the Knesset debate on Monday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked made the law a matter of national honor. “Imagine Israel funding organizations in Britain and encouraging them to leave the European Union,” she said. Britain wouldn’t allow such a thing, said Shaked. “From now on, we won’t let our head hang down.” Shaked is the number-two figure in the Jewish Home party, the right-wing rival and closest coalition ally of Netanyahu’s Likud. Netanyahu himself said after the vote that the law “put an end to the absurd situation in which foreign countries interfered in our internal affairs … without the public knowing about it.”

Let’s put aside the small irony of Netanyahu—the man who virtually endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 and who worked with the GOP to foil the Iran deal in Congress—complaining of political interference by another country. Democracy-building and protecting human rights are indeed part of European foreign policy. In Israel’s case, funding projects with those aims is part of the same EU package as enjoying economic ties that are remarkably close for a country outside Europe.

The expectation in Europe’s relations with Israel is that Israel will function as a democracy. Netanyahu and partners are treating this policy as invidious, and using it to strike out against domestic critics. They want the benefits of the close ties with Europe—but without the “price” of liberal democracy, or of working to end the occupation. The question, as yet unanswered, is how far they can stretch those ties before they snap.

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