The Miami Herald

Anti-settler groups say new Israeli law targets them

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has thrown its support behind a series of bills that left-wing political groups say are intended to weaken them by severely limiting their funding.

Israel's Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the bills on Sunday, effectively ensuring that they would pass into law by throwing the majority support of the ruling coalition behind them.

One bill, introduced by a Likud lawmaker, would ban political organizations in Israel from receiving donations of more than $5,000 from foreign governments and other international groups. Another bill, by the Israeli Beiteinu party, would tax organizations at a rate of 45 percent on all revenue provided by foreign governments.

The bills' impact would fall mostly on groups that often are viewed as having a pro-Palestinian agenda, because those groups are most likely to receive funding from non-Israeli sources.

Limor Livnat, a minister from Netanyahu's Likud party, accused Great Britain, the European Union and others of "meddling" in Israeli affairs and said the bills were intended to prevent them from using Israeli groups to influence Israel's foreign policy or internal politics.

"It's not enough that the British and the EU send money to NGOs and use them to intervene in Israel's affairs," Livant said, referring to the groups by the acronym for non-governmental organizations. "Now they want to be involved in our legislation? It's unacceptable that foreign countries will intervene in what happens here, a state that is fighting for its existence."

The United States and Canada have both urged Netanyahu to scrap the legislation, stating that it harms Israel's standing as a democratic country. Mathew Gould, the British ambassador to Israel, told Netanyahu the legislation "reflects badly" on Israel, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The United States and Canada both fund Israeli nonprofit groups. Individual European countries, including Denmark, Belgium and Spain, as well as Great Britain are also major backers of Israeli non-governmental organizations.

Several Israeli lawmakers have criticized the legislation, especially in light of the criticism voiced from the U.S. and Europe.

"We will fight Netanyahu's draconian laws," said opposition leader Tzipi Livni. "This is an attempt to turn Israel into a dark ... dictatorship."

There's little doubt that the law will have a staggering impact on some of the organizations best known for working against groups that favor Israeli settlement of the West Bank and that monitor anti-Palestinian activities. Such groups rely heavily on donations from foreign governments.

This fiscal year the British government donated more than $142,000 to Peace Now's Settlement Watch program, while the Britain-based Christian Aid group donates more than $300,000 per year to organizations like B'Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights and the Association for Civil Rights, all of which monitor abuses of Palestinian rights.

Peace Now, perhaps the best known critic of Israeli settlement policy, receives 34 percent of its budget from foreign sources, while Physicians for Human Rights receives 80 percent of its donations from outside Israel.

"The bills have been narrowly targeted to groups that the government does not support or appreciate," said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli group devoted to promoting free movement for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that would be affected by the new bills.

Bashi said that the wording of bills specified "civil society organizations engaging in policy work and in public debate." By excluding groups that receive funding from the Israeli government or from private donors, the bill allows many right-wing groups to continue to receive funding from those sources.

"Pro-settlement groups get funds from mostly private sources, so they are excluded, and most of the pro-Israel groups will get some funding from the government, and so they are excluded," Bashi said. "They have made sure that the only groups this really affects are those engaged in what they consider left-wing causes."

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also has criticized the bills and called them " part of a larger effort ... to curtail the work of human rights and social change organizations whose agenda and/or activities differ" from that of the government.

Over the summer, laws were passed that made it a criminal offense to call for a boycott of Israel or its settlements, or to mark the Palestinian naqba, or "catastrophe," as the Palestinians refer to the establishment of the state of Israel.

On Monday, Netanyahu's Likud party submitted a bill that would change the framework of the panel that designates Supreme Court justices in a way opponents claim will strengthen the influence of conservative parties.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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