A law recently passed by the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) on the funding of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) has been criticized as undemocratic by European and American commentators and decision-makers (such as the US State Department and the European Commission). Yet the new Israeli law is actually similar to, and even milder than, US legislation on NGOs.
The law requires that Israeli NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from “foreign political entities” (i.e. foreign governments) make that information public whenever they lobby elected Israeli officials and whenever they publish their reports. The law does not restrict the activities of NGOs, nor does it limit the amount of money they can receive from foreign governments. Rather, the bill enables Israeli lawmakers to know whether they are being lobbied by an organization acting on behalf of foreign governments. NGOs whose funding is mostly governmental can hardly claim to be “non-governmental” and to not promote the agenda of the governments that fund them (indeed, NGOs that receive money from the European Commission are compelled to promote the policies and principles of the European Union).
The transparency introduced by the law is necessary because in recent years the extent of European involvement in Israeli politics via NGOs has reached unprecedented levels. Both the European Commission and European governments donate dozens of millions of euros every year to Israeli NGOs that influence Israel’s decision-making and that affect Israel’s international standing. Some of these NGOs are active in the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) campaign; some support the so-called Palestinian right of return (which is incompatible with the two-state solution); some petition Israel’s High Court of Justice to amend laws passed by the Knesset. In 2009, European-funded Israeli NGOs actively testified to the Goldstone Commission, whose final report accused Israel of intentionally committing war crimes during its military operation in Gaza (an accusation later retracted by Judge Richard Goldstone himself).
Trying to influence the policy of other governments is legitimate. Indeed, this is what diplomacy is about. But it should be done openly and via traditional diplomatic channels. Making it known that certain NGOs are actually governmental and act on behalf of governments does not constitute an infringement upon the freedom of speech and action of those NGOs or upon their ability to raise money. Precisely because governments, as opposed to private individuals, have the actual political power and tools to influence other governments, it is perfectly legitimate to expose them when they try to hide behind NGOs.
Other democracies rightly demand such transparency, too. The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires agents who lobby on behalf of foreign donors to register with the Department of Justice, and to report their activities and finances. The purpose of FARA is to prevent the deception of U.S. lawmakers by lobbyists who actually act on behalf of foreign interests in order to influence U.S. policy making and legislation. Lobbyists who do not comply with FARA can be severely punished. In March 2012, for example, Kashmir-born U.S. lobbyist Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai was sentenced to two years of imprisonment by a U.S. court for not reporting a $3.5 million donation from the Pakistani government.
Some claim that FARA applies equally to all foreign funding (i.e. both foreign governments and private foreign donors). This might be true in theory, but certainly not in practice. Prof. Eugene Kontorovich from Northwestern University and the Kohelet Policy Forum (a think tank) has examined the list of all people and organizations registered as foreign agents in the United States under FARA. In almost all cases, these were agents of foreign governments, of political parties, and of government agencies. Only in rare cases are foreign donors private people, and when they are these are generally politicians.
US legislators, however, recently made things clear about the uniqueness of donations from foreign governments. In January 2015, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that requires from witnesses appearing in a nongovernmental capacity to disclose any contracts or payments originating with a foreign government (the new Israeli law, by contrast, only requires such disclosure when more than 50% of the budget of NGOs comes from foreign governments). Those who claim that Israel’s NGO law is unfair because it focuses on disclosing foreign government funding (and not private foreign funding) for Israeli NGOs should make the same claim about the 2015 House of Representatives resolution.
Also in Europe, NGOs that receive public money are expected to fully disclose their finances. The Council of Europe (an international organization founded in 1949 to promote democracy and human rights) published a memorandum in December 2008 on “The Legal Status of Non-Governmental Organizations in Europe.” The memorandum states that “NGOs which have been granted any form of public support can be required each year to submit reports on their accounts and an overview of their activities to a designated supervising body” (Art. 62) and that “NGOs which have been granted any form of public support can be required to have their accounts audited by an institution or person independent of their management” (Art. 65).
Just like US legislation and European guidelines, the new Israeli law is meant to guarantee the transparency of NGO funding. Comparing Israel’s new law to Russian legislation is absurd. Russian laws on NGOs do infringe upon their freedom. The 2015 Russian law allows the government to prosecute NGOs deemed “undesirable” by the government on national security grounds. Individuals working for NGOs arbitrarily declared “undesirable” by the government can be jailed for up to six years.
The new Israeli law does not infringe upon the freedom of NGOs. It introduces an overdue transparency that is justifiably enforced in the United States and in Europe. Israeli members of Knesset who claim that the law should apply not only to the donations of foreign governments but to any foreign donation are welcome to amend the law. Until they do, partial transparency is preferable to no transparency at all.