Netanyahu’s proposed ban on NGO funding raises questions for U.S. groups

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Larry Garber remembers the last time he was living in Israel and someone wanted to cut off foreign government funds to human rights groups that discomfited the political establishment.

It was 2000 and Garber, who then ran the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in the West Bank and Gaza, was meeting with Hasan Asfour, a Cabinet minister in Yasser Arafat’s notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority government.

Memories of that experience resurfaced last week when Garber, who now directs the New Israel Fund in Washington, was reading The Jerusalem Post and saw the same old arguments — but this time from a senior Israeli official.

According to The Jerusalem Post story, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is contemplating legislation that would ban foreign government funding for groups such as Breaking the Silence, which solicited claims from Israeli soldiers about army abuses during the recent Gaza war.

Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s senior political adviser, was quoted as saying that funding from foreign embassies for the group amounted to “blatant and unacceptable” intervention in Israel’s internal affairs.

"Just as it would be unacceptable for European governments to support anti-war NGOs in the U.S.,” Dermer said, “it is unacceptable for the Europeans to support local NGOs opposed to the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government.”

The proposal is being praised in some corners of the Jewish community as a necessary step to block foreign governments from unduly undermining the will of Israeli voters. But some Jewish organizational officials counter that a ban on foreign government support of NGOs is more characteristic of a dictatorship, and would undermine U.S. efforts to support NGOs in Iran and other countries with poor human rights records.

One senior official at a centrist Jewish organization said such an initiative was profoundly counterintuitive, considering how much the Israeli and Jewish establishments had reaped from Western government backing for NGOs assisting Jews in the Soviet Union during the Cold War — and how such support continues today in Iran and the former Soviet Union.

“It’s a little surprising,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to avoid embarrassing Israel’s government. “All over the world, NGOs are accused of taking other governments’ dollars and being tainted by that — the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the National Republican Institute. If the Israeli government says we’re going to only let certain human rights groups operate, it makes it harder to make our case” elsewhere.

Mainstream pro-Israel groups quietly back U.S. government funding for pro-democracy groups in Iran and have been supportive of moves in Congress to shift some of the assistance Egypt receives from military aid to funding for human rights NGOs.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, backed the Netanyahu government’s initiative. Foxman said that foreign support for NGOs  was simply a means for foreign governments to effect through the back door what Israelis have already rejected.

“There’s too much mischief through Israeli NGOs to try and achieve domestically through foreign money what could not be achieved through the democratic process,” he said.

Another official at a pro-Israel group says the difference is that Israel is a first world democracy — democracies meddling in the business of other democracies is inappropriate.

“We oppose undermining and meddling in democratic allies,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Additionally, the groups Dermer was targeting, such as Breaking the Silence, were identified with a specific political camp, on Israel’s left, he said.

“There’s a difference between civil society institute, and politically motivated and politically charged groups,” the official said.

In response to such arguments, Garber said that government funding for human rights groups in democracies was not at all unusual. Prior to his stint dealing with the West Bank and Gaza, he spent seven years at USAID negotiating the prickly issue of funding such groups in nascent democracies such as Russia.

Furthermore, under the umbrella of groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a process exists of democracies monitoring one another — the Helsinki groups of legislators who track human rights in each others’ nations is an example. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, for instance, routinely tracks discrimination against Roma and Jews in democracies such as Romania and the Baltic states.

“Democracies can work together,” Garber said. “How do you strengthen electoral systems? This is part of what we are as democracies.”

But Garber, whose New Israel Fund raises funds principally from foundations and private donors, agreed that a case could be made against foreign governments funding Israeli NGOs if only because Israel’s status as an industrialized nation meant that its NGOs already enjoyed an indigenous fund-raising base. Israeli NGOs also were adept at raising funds from private donors overseas.

“Both on developmental and political grounds, you can make the argument [that Israel] shouldn’t be receiving” funds from overseas governments, Garber said.

However, he wondered how Netanyahu’s government would draft such a law; describing an NGO as “political” casts a broad net, Garber suggested. For example, he noted, the U.S. Senate just approved funding for Israeli universities. Think tanks attached to those universities — including those that tilt to the right — might be ineligible for the funds if Netanyahu’s initiative bears fruit.

“The government would be hard-pressed to designate ‘political NGOs’ without including organizations the government would like to see continue receiving funds,” he said.

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