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Ron Dermer, NGO funding and FARA

Ron Dermer, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is getting mucho kudos for his letter ripping Time Magazine for its recent article on “Israel’s rightward lurch.”

It’s a good letter. Read it. But this puzzles me, and has for some time — Dermer is not the first person to make this argument for looking into foreign funding of human rights groups:

As for questioning the legitimacy of foreign government funding of Israeli NGOs, mentioning America’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) may have presented a more balanced picture.

FARA requires that any organization engaged in lobbying in the U.S. that receives money from foreign individuals, let alone foreign governments, must among other things register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice and permit the Attorney General to inspect all of its activities.

It is hard to imagine any democratic country accepting foreign governments intervening in its domestic affairs by funding domestic groups engaged not merely in criticism of a particular government’s policy but also attacking the very foundations of the State.

What would Britain do if the French government was actively funding a British NGO that sought to eliminate the monarchy? What would the United States do if the Iranian government was funding American NGOs pressing for a withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East?

To be clear, we’re talking mostly about European governments. As NGO Monitor has argued on this website, the reported incidence of Israeli NGOs getting money from Arab governments is tiny.

So, yes, I know FARA, I cover FARA — and Sweden funding B’tselem looks nothing like FARA. What precisely is the bang B’tselem is giving Sweden, or the Netherlands, or Norway or Britain, for their bucks?

You register under FARA if you’re lobbying to advance the material interests of another country — aid for Sri Lanka, jobs for Singapore, combat aircraft for Egypt. What, materially, do the countries that fund Israeli NGOs earn?

And by the way, indirect, A-through-B through-C arguments, don’t work, i.e., that Sweden funds NGOs to curry favor with Arab governments and then the Arabs give Sweden nice pressies. Because the same logic would motor the argument that funding human rights NGOs strengthens Israel’s democracy — and, necessarily,  the case against delegitimizing Israel. So maybe it’s a Zionist plot.

And were the French to fund an NGO to end the monarchy, the Guardian would endorse it, the Daily Telegraph would run a tongue in cheek editorial, the Sun would spread a page 3 model wearing nothing but a tiara beneath the headline “Kiss This, Froggies”, a lot of Brits would sign on — and the only folks showing up furious on the steps of the Elysee would be the Paris Match masthead, followed by a passel of paparazzi, crying lost income.

UPDATE: I’m not sure what the status is now of Israeli laws governing foreign funding for elections. But a reader points out that back in the 1990s when such fund-raising was pretty much conducted openly, Dermer’s boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, wasn’t shy about taking money from Joseph Gutnick, the Australian minerals magnate. (Nor were leaders on the left for that matter apprehensive about fund-raising among liberal Jewish Americans.) And do the folks who back the Knesset inquiry into foreign funding for NGOs also back looking into who owns influential Israeli news outlets?

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