Israel strikes a blow to foreign influence of its policies

Monday, November 14, 2011 |  Ryan Jones

Israel's cabinet on Sunday approved two bills that will significantly hinder the ability of foreign governments and organizations to influence Israeli politics.

The first bill passed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation puts an NIS 20,000 (approx. $5,500) annual limit on the amount of foreign donations that can be received by an Israeli NGO that seeks to influence Israeli government policy.

The second bill then slaps a 45 percent tax on any of those donations that came from foreign governments. NGOs that also receive direct funding from the Israeli government - such as educational or social welfare organizations - will remain tax-exempt.

The bills were hotly debated both in the cabinet and by the Israeli public.

Opponents of the bills, including six government mininsters, argued that they were detrimental to the democratic nature of the Jewish State, and could be perceived as discrimination against certain sectors of society.

Proponents argued that the bills do not target any particular sector of society - all NGOs will be subject to the new rules - and that they are perfectly in line with similar laws in other Western democracies.

For instance, the American Foreign Agent Registration Act requires NGOs supported by foreign funds to register as "foreign agents" and to make public their relationship to their foreign donors. It is also prohibited for foreign governments and organizations to contribute financially to the election campaigns of American officials.

Still, many in Israel argued that the Netanyahu government had gone a step too far by cutting off the foreign money lifeline of many NGOs, a move they insisted would limit free speech.

But do foreign governments have a right to free speech within the political framework of a sovereign nation?

Writing for the popular conservative blog Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein responded to European pressure that Netanyahu shelf the NGO bills:

"So the idea here, obviously is that a 'democratic' country must allow foreign governments, who represent foreign citizens and not Israelis, to interfere in its domestic politics by supporting organizations that range from the fringe left to beyond the fringe left. ...Imagine if Israel was funneling millions of Euros annually to Basque separatists in Spain, Flemish nationalists in Belgium, or to one of numerous neo-fascist fronts in Norway and France. I have a very strong feeling that the EU’s views of what 'democratic' countries must tolerate from foreign governments would change rather quickly."

The NGOs that are likely to be most affected by these new bills are left-wing organizations that receive much of their funding from the European Union, often from the governing body itself. It is telling that these NGOs are often unable to raise significant funds among the Israeli public.

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