Monday, November 14, 2011

Israeli Government Backs Limits on Financing for Nonprofit Groups


Published: November 14, 2011

JERUSALEM - A committee of Israeli cabinet ministers voted Sunday to back two bills aimed at curtailing the support of left-wing nonprofit groups from foreign governments.

The 11-to-5 vote threw the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government behind the bills, which human rights groups have denounced as violations of free expression and an effort by the government to silence its critics.

Officials and legal experts said that the bills would probably be altered before reaching Parliament and could ultimately be struck down by the Supreme Court.

One bill would limit to about $5,000 a year the amount that a foreign government, government-supported foundation or group of governments like the European Union could give to Israeli groups considered "political." The other bill would impose a heavy tax on such contributions.

The bills were largely aimed at groups that focus on Palestinian rights, civil liberties and other causes advocated by the Israeli left, many of which rely on European government support. An official in Mr. Netanyahu's office said the prime minister backed efforts to limit foreign government donations to the groups because they amounted, in his view, to interference in Israeli politics. But he wanted the bills amended so their impact would be narrowed.

Lawyers said defining which groups were political ones was a task that would not pass legal scrutiny.

Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli group devoted to promoting free movement for Palestinians in Gaza that would be affected by the new bills, said that "while it seems likely that some of the most antidemocratic aspects of the bills will be softened, that actually could make the situation worse, because it would define political speech in such a way as to silence some but not others and possibly allow the bills to become law."

Gisha gets half its annual budget in contributions from European governments and foreign foundations that rely partly on government support.

The measures would be less likely to affect right-wing groups, whose foreign donations come mostly from private groups and individuals.

Three prominent ministers from Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan, opposed the bills in Sunday's ministerial committee vote. They raised a procedural appeal, which means the bills must return to the government for reconsideration before reaching Parliament.

The issue of foreign government backing for Israeli groups associated with the left has been a deeply contentious one here since a United Nations report two years ago accused Israel of war crimes in its invasion of Gaza in late 2008. That report, by a committee chaired by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist, was said in Israel to have received a great deal of help from local nonprofit groups that live largely on foreign government donations.

Many Israelis believe such groups are helping the country's enemies in a campaign to delegitimize Israel. Human rights advocates here counter that bills such as the two that were backed on Sunday are doing far more damage.

Last February, Parliament passed a law requiring Israeli groups to report quarterly on which foreign governments were donating to them. A group that campaigned for that law, NGO Monitor, said its concern was that European governments were supporting political activities in Israel without accountability.

Gerald Steinberg, the group's president, said, however, that he opposed the two new bills under consideration. He added that he suspected they would not survive.

"This is mostly domestic politics," he said, noting that the public is upset over foreign government support for the left here and that Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party was locking horns with Yisrael Beiteinu, the nationalist party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to harness that anger.

"My gut is that Netanyahu will realize that this does damage to Israel's image and feeds tension with the Europeans," Mr. Steinberg said. "Transparency is the main issue."

He said that European governments spend more per year on left-wing Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups than their total contributions to nonprofit human rights groups in other countries in the Middle East.

"We estimate that together, this amounts to between $75 and $100 million from European governments to Israeli and Palestinian groups annually, far exceeding funding for human rights and democracy organizations in the rest of the region," he said.

In addition to Gisha, about 15 other Israeli groups rely heavily on European aid, including Breaking the Silence, which focuses on abuses by Israeli troops, and Physicians for Human Rights, Israel.

Ms. Bashi, of Gisha, who is an American-trained lawyer, said she was not comforted by the idea of leaving the bills to Supreme Court scrutiny because Parliament was looking into ways to control and intimidate the justices.

Consideration of a bill to give a parliamentary committee the power to vet high court nominees was postponed on Sunday by Mr. Netanyahu.

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