Jonah Naghi
Jonah Naghi

The Consequence of Labeling Israeli NGOs as ‘Foreign Agents’

Earlier this month, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party went on a tour with right-wing NGO Regavim. At the end of the tour, she announced at a local settlement that she saw how Palestinian homes were illegally built in Area C. The next day, five Palestinian homes in the village of Umm El Kheir were demolished. Regavim, with the help of Shaked, lobbied for the bulldozing of these homes. This is example of the dominance of the right not only in Israeli politics, but also in Israeli civil society.

This comes shortly after the Knesset’s passing of the NGO law, “NGO Transparency Bill.” The bill requires any NGO that receives more than 50% of its funding from foreign governments to show who they get their funding from on all their official documents, including online. In addition, they are required to wear special tags when in the Knesset and refusing to do so could result in a fine.

Proponents of the bill suggest that this law will only increase Israel’s transparency; it will not undermine Israel’s democratic integrity. It will prevent foreign governments infiltrating into Israel’s affairs. If the bill just so happens to target left-wing NGOs, then they are clearly under the influence of foreign governments. Right-wing NGOs are not under fire because they receive much of their funding from private donors. Eugene Kontorovich explains the difference: “Governments have foreign policies, trade rules, and United Nations votes—and they use the groups they fund in Israel to produce documents that they then invoke when taking those actions. Private people have no similar powers.”

The critics argue that the bill disproportionately targets left-wing NGOs. For instance, 23 of the 25 NGOs the bill lists are considered left-wing NGOs, such as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and Gisha. However, no right-wing groups are, while the other two are non-affiliated with either side. Such lopsided targeting could potentially have several consequences.

Executive Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMAP) Joel Braunold recently discussed his concern about the bill in a interview on “Let’s Talk About the Middle East.” He talked about the issue over the bill’s definition of a “foreign agent” by debunking the comparison to America’s law on listing certain NGOs as representing foreign interests. Most of the left-wing organizations targeted in the bill are domestic organizations that only receive money from foreign governments. The United States lists organizations as foreign agents if they are “set up” by foreign governments, rather than funded by them. For example, Peace Now and B’Tselem existed in Israel far before they were funded by foreign governments.

Thus, the definition of a “foreign agent” is practically controversial, but it also has practical consequences for the future advocacy of NGOs such as ALLMAP.

In an interview I had with Mr. Braunold earlier this summer, he discussed the importance of people-to-people dialogue and the challenges they come across. He says, “it is a hard situation when you have to work with COGAT in order to get a permit to enter Israel and to get a permit you haven’t been able to do anything that could be considered a security risk, though you are trying to change the status quo.” Preventing NGOs from obtaining permits to help Israelis and Palestinians come together might hinder the prospects for peace.

Braunold further explained in our interview on how people-to-people dialogue helps ripen the possibility for a peace agreement, in this case a two-state solution, and references Northern Ireland as an example: “If you look what happened in Northern Ireland you need a significant…work base before and after the Good Friday Agreements and I think the same will be true here. The day the peace breaks out, the day we will all work (for) coexistence work…building constituencies on each side that can relate to one another.”

Additionally, and again, being labeled as a “foreign agent” could taint public perception of NGOs. Liel Maghneh, a co-director of the Israel-Palestien Creative Regional Initiatives (a joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank), says that, “the general Israeli perception, such requirement will be able to de-legitimize certain publications…the impact could be disastrous.”

A specific consequence of the stigmatization of NGOs is that it may hinder their ability to raise awareness of certain ideas on how to achieve peace. With organizations like BDS seeking to eliminate Israel through a zero-sum game approach, it often begets a zero-sum game mentality in Israeli society. As Mr. Maghneh says, “each side has specific requests that are usually perceived as a zero sum game. Under these circumstances, the Think Tanks (and NGOs) are able to develop creative and ‘out of the box’ ideas that can offer solutions that are beyond the zero sum perception.” A good example of this is Israeli public perception on the Arab Peace Initiative.

In a recent polling, 73.5% of Hebrew-speaking Israelis said they had never heard of the API. Plus, most were opposed to it. However, when the details were explained to them, 55% said they would support it. In other words, though they may instinctively reject a regionally based agreement, once they are aware of the details and its compromises it reassures Israelis and they tend to support it. NGOs can help raise that awareness, but if they are labeled and stigmatized as “foreign agents” it will make it harder for NGOs to help educate the Israeli public about possible solutions that they may find appealing.

An “out of the box, zero-sum game mentality” is crucial for finding a sustainable and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. These creative ideas can help counter those who seek Israel’s elimination like the BDS Movement. By labeling left leaning NGOs as “foreign agents” they will not be able to promote awareness of creative solutions to counter those who seek to eliminate Israel through a zero-sum game.

The original publication of this article mis-paraphrased Mr. Braunold on his quote regarding getting permits from COGAT. The updated quote is accurate.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and an active lay leader with Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid program. A frequent commentator on Israeli-Palestinian and US-Israel affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and recently received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College.
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