Undermining Democracy


Published November 21, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
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Israeli President Shimon Peres thinks the bills are a very bad idea. So do the opposition leader and three prominent ministers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party. Even Gerald Steinberg, head of NGO Monitor, who has made his reputation exposing what he considers dangerous left-wing biases in Israeli human rights groups — even Steinberg thinks these bills go too far.

But there’s Netanyahu, boldly ignoring this centrist sentiment and throwing his support behind two efforts to curtail funding for left-wing political groups from foreign governments. One of the bills would limit to about $5,000 a year the amount that a foreign government, government-supported foundation or group of governments (i.e. the European Union) could give to Israeli groups considered “political.” Its sponsor, Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis, says it’s necessary to limit foreign interference in Israel’s internal affairs. “It is hard for me to think of a single Israeli who would tolerate money transfers from Israel’s budget to support political organization in Britain, Holland or France,” Akunis wrote in an op-ed in the daily newspaper Hayom.

Well, then, isn’t it up to the citizens of Britain, Holland and France to complain? Why restrict funding for legitimate organizations? Who gets to define “political,” anyway?

The second bill, introduced by Fania Kirshenbaum of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, would tax the NGOs at a rate of 45% on all revenue provided by a foreign government. “This proposed legislation treats Israel’s friends as enemies and those committed to human rights as accomplices in terror,” says Arye Carmon, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute, an independent think tank. “This has no place in the democratic world.”

Indeed, it does not. News reports from Israel are saying that Netanyahu may seek to delay consideration of these bills, which is a far better idea than what seemed to be his original tactic – to appease right-wing lawmakers while hoping that Israel’s Supreme Court will toss the bills off the field. Perhaps he realizes that these efforts undermine the very advantage Israel retains in a region rife with undemocratic governments and weak public sectors. “What’s wrong with people donating to different kinds of organizations?” Peres asked. What’s wrong, indeed?

And here’s another question: What is the Netanyahu government so fearful of that it stoops to this level of control and censorship? As opposition leader Tzipi Livni noted, “Israel is strong enough to not have to shut mouths and to be the kind of country in which everyone can voice their opinions, even if we don’t appreciate it.”

Sounds like the kind of country Israel is and should continue to be.

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