NGO transparency bill passes first Knesset reading

The Knesset on Monday approved by a 50-43 margin the first reading of the controversial NGO transparency bill.

The bill, sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, seeks to impose new transparency regulations on Israeli nonprofit groups that receive funds from foreign governments or bodies such as the European Union. The bill would require nongovernmental organizations to give details of overseas donations in all their official publications if more than half their funding comes from such entities.

Monday’s vote came after an hours-long stormy debate on the Knesset floor. Shaked said opponents of the bill did not have a valid justification for their position. “Anyone watching from the side can see that your opposition long ago shifted from ideological opposition to opposition based on paranoia,” Shaked told the bill’s opponents.

To become law, the bill needs to pass three votes in the Knesset. After the approval of the first reading on Monday, the bill now goes to a committee for final drafting before a second and third vote at a separate parliamentary session.

The U.S. and EU have raised concerns publicly and privately about the bill.

Opponents of the bill claim it is discriminatory because groups that oppose the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians are the main recipients of money from foreign governments and the EU.

Private funds from overseas are not addressed in the bill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended the bill as being “democratic and necessary.” Addressing Likud members last week, Netanyahu drew parallels with Spain’s Basque country where various separatist groups used peaceful or violent means to further their cause. “Try to imagine Israel funding Basque independence organizations,” Netanyahu said.

More than 30,000 NGOs are registered in Israel, about half of them active. Around 70 of those groups deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and receive funds either from the EU as a whole, or individual member governments, including Denmark, Sweden and Belgium, as well as nonmember Norway.

Once the bill reaches a Knesset committee for fine-tuning, lawmakers are likely to focus on the possible removal of a widely-criticized clause that would require representatives of foreign government-funded NGOs to wear special identification badges when they visit the Knesset.

Shaked has said she was determined to crack down on those groups that take foreign money and then criticize Israel, accusing some NGOs of “eroding the legitimacy of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Several weeks ago, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro met with Shaked to discuss the bill and took the unusual step of issuing a statement expressing Washington’s concern and the need for governments to “protect free expression and peaceful dissent.”

More recently, 50 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to all Knesset members, urging them to vote against the bill.

Likud MK Nava Boker said she was “shocked” to receive the letter. “Perhaps the members of the European Parliament are confused or maybe they are used to activating their foreign agents here,” Boker said. “I am committed only to the people of Israel. The State of Israel is a sovereign nation and we will not tolerate this insolent foreign intervention. The NGO bill is an excellent bill and the Europeans better get the hint — leave the State of Israel alone.”