An article in Jerusalem Post made it seem as if Israel is arbitrarily seeking to shut up legitimate dissent by cutting off funds from European governments to NGOs operating in Israel. This provoked the sort of Israel baiting that might be anticipated, but actually there is probably no such plan underway, just an unnamed official, talking about other unnamed officials who are supposedly discussing the feasibility of such a banning proposal:
Recent revelations about foreign government funding for local NGOs involved in political activity have triggered discussions by senior Israeli officials about the possibility of making such aid illegal, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The senior officials are looking into whether it might be possible to ban donations from foreign governments to political NGOs, just as it is forbidden for foreign residents, let alone governments, to contribute to Israeli political parties.
One of the questions that will have to be addressed, according to an official involved in the discussions, is what constitutes a political NGO.
No doubt it would have been better had this official waited to discuss the idea only if it became an actual possibility, and it also would have been better if the article had clarified the nature and extent of the problem. Gerald Steinberg, founder of NGO Monitor, a group that has been tracing the actions and funding of various NGOs, explains the alarming extent of the problem and the measures taken by European governments to avoid transparency. He proposes not a ban, but rather a requirement for transparency, to make it easier to hold governments accountable for funding projects and groups that delegitimize Israel and Zionism, decry dialogue, and call for "armed resistance" and violent struggle. It is all the more ironic that such funds are regularly distributed to groups like Alternative Information Center, BADIL, ICAHD and others as part of programs that are supposed to promote "peace."
Aug. 2, 2009
Gerald M. Steinberg , THE JERUSALEM POST
Herb Keinon's article "Israel targets foreign gov't NGO funds" (July 31) quotes an unnamed Israeli official as advocating a law to ban foreign government funding for numerous radical organizations.
If this, in fact, is the thinking among some Israeli government officials, it should be dropped. Prohibitions in democracies are generally undesirable, and while the claims that such curbs would violate free speech are exaggerated, this approach is unnecessary.
Instead, a policy of complete transparency regarding such funding would be entirely justified and be a major and very belated step towards protecting Israeli democracy from such crude manipulation.
Tens of millions of euros, British pounds, Norwegian krona and Swiss francs are provided by European governments every year to dozens of political NGOs, but most of this is hidden. These governments treat their funding for groups like Yesh Din, ICAHD, PHR-I, Breaking the Silence, Bimkom, Peace Now, etc. as "top secret," reflecting the realization that such activities lack legitimacy.
This obsessive secrecy is reflected in the fact that the Dutch ambassador to Israel and the Spanish deputy chief of mission acknowledged that they were not informed of their own governments' support for Israeli NGOs.
Indeed, much of this funding comes from outside the foreign ministries, and is funneled through separate aid groups, such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the British Department for International Development. The officials in these agencies often have close relations with the officials in the NGOs that they fund, and share their ideological biases, or know how to prey on their weaknesses.
Similarly, the European Commission (EC) sends tens of millions of euros every year (the total is classified) under numerous programs, and there is no central listing or accounting for the funds. When NGO Monitor officially requested the details under the EU's own "freedom of information" of regulations, the first response was an attempt to invoke security claims.
Following an appeal, and six months later, the EC sent a CD with some documents, from which almost all of the information was deleted - again demonstrating that this massive manipulation is a highly guarded secret.
A law requiring full disclosure of foreign government transfers of funds to any Israeli non-governmental organization 60 days in advance would lift the cover from this illicit and anti-democratic practice. Israel is the only democratic country in the world where other democracies use massive funding for political groups to influence policies and public opinion.
Israeli NGO recipients would be also be required to disclose funding information involving foreign governments whenever they place an advertisement in a newspaper, organize a demonstration, or initiate one of the flood of cases in the High Court. How many Israelis knew that the EC had allocated money to the Four Mothers movement that pressed for the 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and all of the consequences that resulted?
Such a policy would not be unique to Israel. In the United States, lobbyists who are funded by other nations must register as agents of foreign governments. This does not restrict their freedom of speech, but it does alert the public, members of Congress, and others to the origins of the resources used for such lobbying.
Such transparency may not end such foreign government funding for NGOs, but it is likely to make it far more difficult to justify.
The writer is the executive director of NGO Monitor and chairs the political science department of Bar-Ilan University.
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