July 12, 2016

Bibi imposes Putin-leaning NGO restrictions

In Israel today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's carefully constructed Knesset majority passed a new law restricting NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments. Effectively, it establishes a second class for those NGOs, nearly all of which are devoted to expanding civil society and to connecting Israelis with likeminded democracy activists in Western Europe and the United States. That's right, U.S. Government-supported organizations are also included.

Not included? Dozens of right-wing, pro-settlement groups which receive funding from non-governmental foreign sources. In most cases, this unofficial funding is difficult to trace. And in many cases, those donating to the 'acceptable' NGOs are also major donors to political campaigns in the United States...invariably, Republican ones. And guess what? Netanyahu's Likud also receives significant support from those same individuals and enjoys close ties and coordination with the U.S. Republican Party; as Ambassador to the United States, Netanyahu confidant Ron Dermer has even spoken at the annual Republican strategy retreat convened by Sheldon Adelson. And Adelson is the most prominent of these donors, putting him in position to pull the strings of major politicians in both countries. And yet, no need for disclosure or special status, or Knesset speeches denouncing the right-wing groups as traitors.

By no stretch of logic can this legislation be understood to promote clean government, transparency, and rule of law. It protects vested interests of the party in power and casts a shadow across public discourse with and within Israeli society.

This is not about keeping the West Bank and the Temple Mount, maintaining law and order, or undermining the nuclear deal with Iran. This is about raw power and fear. This is about fear of change and of engaging on issues and principles, and it's about instilling fear and suspicion among Israelis themselves.

American Jewish organizations have warned against this legislation, because in its nature it is anti-American values, anti-Jewish, and an all-around bad idea. For the same reasons, we have denounced countries like Russia when they impose restrictions and humiliations upon the NGOs funded by Western governments and by our own American Jewish organizations. When a close ally like Israel does so, it sends a signal to Moscow and other power centers that it's really OK to go after civil society, especially if you can keep the moneyed interests satisfied. The Kremlin's international propaganda network is already smugly reporting the European reaction. It's not yet as bad for civil society as in Russia, where funding is also restricted, but it is an unprecedented opening along that trajectory.

It sends a message to Palestinians inside Israel and out that they need not bother hoping for an enlightened Israel to eventually do the right thing, whatever that could possibly be. It demonizes key Jewish Federation leaders across America who have devoted their lives and their fortunes to building and securing cultivating Israel and its place in the world, and whose generosity has included mainstream groups like the New Israel Fund.

For a country that's premised on a set of ideals, and for whom this gratuitous legislation serves no national interest, it is a dark day.

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