U.S. warns Israel over bill to limit foreign funding to NGOs
U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro tells Israeli officials that Obama administration is concerned by proposed legislation; says it is much more extreme than similar laws in western countries.
By Barak Ravid, Haaretz
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, recently relayed a message to senior members of the Prime Minister’s Office that the Obama administration is concerned by proposed legislation that will potentially limit funding by foreign governments for nonprofit organizations. Shapiro said the proposed legislation is much more extreme than U.S. law or similar laws in western democracies.
An Israeli source says Shapiro spoke on the subject with the national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, and the PM’s political adviser, Ron Dermer, some 10 days ago.
The ambassador stressed that he was instructed by the State Department to make clear to Israel the U.S. stance on the law on funding NGOs.
The exchange between Shapiro and the two senior advisers took place before the drafting of the latest version of the bill, agreed by Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) and representatives of Yisrael Beiteinu.
Shapiro said claims that the bill, proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu MK Faina Kirshenbaum, is a translation of the American law is not correct.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others in Yisrael Beiteinu have argued that the bill which Kirshenbaum proposed is an accurate translation of American law.
According to Kirshenbaum’s proposed bill, a 45 percent tax would be levied on contributions received by Israeli NGOs from foreign countries. The new version of the bill will have to pass through a hearing before the Knesset Finance Committee.
The U.S. Embassy in Israel provides funding for a number of NGOs. Examples include NGOs that encourage the teaching of English, coexistence between Jews and Arabs, and bolstering the standing of women in the Bedouin communities.
Shapiro said that all projects funded by the U.S. government are apolitical and are not controversial. However, he added, the bill is too broad and therefore there are concerns that NGOs aided by the U.S. administration will be harmed.
A similar message was relayed by the German ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis, during a meeting in recent weeks with members of the PMO and with coalition head, MK Zeev Elkin (Likud). The German ambassador said the bill undermines Israel’s image in the world and provides its enemies in Europe with ammunition.
The two main parties in Germany have NGOs associated with them that are active in Israel. These are funded by the parties, and contribute to projects of Israeli NGOs on the left. The German NGOs, affiliated with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, sent a joint letter to MKs expressing their concerns with the bill.
By Amy Teibel, AP
JERUSALEM— Israel’s attorney general has said that controversial bills that would sharply restrict funding for dovish groups are starkly unconstitutional.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would not be able to defend the bills in court, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The bills “do grave damage to a string of constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and equal rights,” said the letter sent to the prime minister’s office last week.
The bills, approved last month by a ministerial committee, would limit annual donations to a single group by foreign governments or international bodies to 20,000 shekels, or about $5,000. They would also slap a 45 percent tax rate on the contributions.
The proposed legislation is among a raft of bills advanced under Netanyahu’s government that critics say mean to stifle dissent and pluralism.
The funding measures “place Israel on a short list of countries that have adopted similar measures and whose regimes Israel should not envy or try to emulate,” Weinstein wrote.
He said that while his office did not customarily declare legislation unconstitutional, he was doing so anyway, because of the “starkness of the case before us.”
“If these bills become law, it will be impossible to defend them against the petitions that will be submitted to the Supreme Court,” Weinstein said.
“I ask that you make sure that the Israeli Cabinet and coalition that you head oppose these bills,” he added.
Netanyahu’s office had no comment on Weinstein’s letter. But shortly after the ministerial committee approved the bills in November, an Israeli official told the AP that they had been put on hold, following objections by foreign governments, Weinstein and even some Cabinet ministers.
The bills were drafted after Israel-based groups supported by foreign sources gave a U.N.-appointed commission unflattering testimony about Israeli military conduct during the 2009 war in the Gaza Strip.
Although the proposed legislation would apply to all “political” groups, critics see it aimed specifically at leftist organizations, which receive donations from foreign governments and agencies. Hawkish groups supportive of hardline governments such as Netanyahu’s generally receive donations from wealthy individuals.
On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary weighed in on the proposed bills in Israel, saying his country was “deeply concerned.”
“While the passing of legislation is a matter for the Israeli Knesset, we strongly call upon all involved to reconsider this move and for the Israeli government to make clear its own opposition to it,” Hague said in a statement.