And then they went after civil society organizations

Yossi Mekelberg

The jury is still out regarding whether Israel’s coalition government either genuinely doesn’t understand what a true liberal democracy is, or whether they just passionately hate the very idea of it. But this is not the only baffling aspect of their assault on the pillars of their country’s democratic system — there is also the chaotic nature of it, as they go about shooting from the hip at anything and everything that they target as their political enemies, yet without any understanding of the opposition they might face or how they might overcome it. They are switching tactics, from a blitz of legislation clearly aimed at grabbing the maximum amount of power for themselves, followed by an attempt to sedate a suspicious and protesting public with sham dialogue, while they then try to sneak in legislation using salami tactics to erode the democratic system slice by slice, hoping that this will pass quietly under the radar.
Similar to other countries that have gone down the slippery slope from a fully democratic system to a mere semblance of democracy that is largely restricted to holding periodic elections, a number of institutions and values have been targeted, among them the judicial system, opposition parties, free media and expression, academia and civil society, and the coalition looks set to continue this trend until the entire country is exposed to a single voice, that of the masters who are in charge of government. In one of the latest attacks on a free society, one that has been thwarted for now, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation was set to discuss a bill whose sole objective was to restrict the ability of Israel’s not-for-profit organizations to accept donations from foreign governments, on the face of it a piece of legislation aimed at preventing unwanted foreign intervention in the country’s affairs, something which could easily appeal to an unsuspecting public. After all, who wants their country’s sovereignty to be breached? The bill states that any non-profit group that engages in public advocacy two years before or after receiving a donation from a foreign government will lose its status as a public institution and will no longer be eligible for tax exemptions. To make things worse, these non-profits will be hit with a 65-percent income tax bill. In other words, it will be not worth applying for these funds and there will not be the resources to operate them. So what was meant to give the impression of creating a level playing field for NGOs of all political and ideological persuasion, has been shown in reality to be another attempt to give unfair advantage to those organizations that are more in line with the government’s right-wing ideology.
Where right-wing cynicism and the manipulation of civil society are woven into this piece of legislation is revealed when one examines the sources of support for the right-wing non-profits compared to those who are critical of right-wing governments such as the one currently in office. Most of the funding for non-profits who support right-wing policies such as overhauling the judiciary or advocating further settlements in the Occupied Territories are sourced from private benefactors, while foreign government funding, which is done with complete transparency and accountability and is open to all who meet their criteria, is ending for those who promote human rights and equality of citizenship, including those who oppose the occupation. These are all legitimate causes, supported by the international community, but are voices that Netanyahu and his political partners would like to silence.
It is not only the devil, but the evil which is in the details of trying to shut down vibrant debate in a democratic society, as antagonistic as this can sometimes be. The bill attempts to limit public advocacy to an extent that these organizations won’t be able to promote their cause through the Knesset, its members and its committees, the judiciary, the cabinet, ministers, government agencies, or local authorities, including their employees, and to top it all won’t be allowed to pay for advertising that highlights their opinions. Setting such severe conditions and penalties for what can only be regarded as the legitimate activities of civil society organizations only just falls short of closing them down altogether by government decree.
The rather badly concealed ploy of this legislation was to silence non-profit organizations such as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, or the New Israeli Fund, who are all highly critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or generally of the treatment of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. These organizations, in the climate of unabated violations of human rights and the illegal expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory, activities carried out with complete impunity, are doing their best to induce some level of accountability for these gross violations of international law. Moreover, beyond the government’s unacceptable, unjustified and undemocratic attempts to arbitrarily prevent the advancement of legitimate causes, to make things worse their measures might also end up harming non-profit organizations that address many other social issues, for the sole purpose of enabling the government to hide behind the false claim that it doesn’t specifically target human rights organizations.
For now, the Israeli government has postponed this horrendous piece of legislation, mainly due to international pressure. This sixth Netanyahu government, in its disruptive nature and its unquenched desire to weaken Israel’s democracy, has already managed to send hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, and to fall out with friends and allies. Germany’s ambassador to Israel tweeted that “The draft bill on NGO taxation is a matter of grave concern to us & to many of Israel’s international partners.” The ambassador also reminded Israel’s government of something they should have internalized already, that “Lively and unhindered relations between civil societies are of essential value in our liberal democracies. We will continue to raise the issue with our Israeli friends.” Israel’s closest ally the US was not far behind in expressing its extreme displeasure with this additional attempt to erode democracy. The State Department’s spokesperson Matthew Miller not only emphasised the centrality of NGOs as part of civil society and “critical to democratic and responsive transparent government,” but in a clear reference to the proposed legislation declared that “We firmly believe that civil society should have the opportunity and space to operate and raise resources around the world.”
However, with this latest show of incompetence, myopia and disregard for democratic pluralism, Israel’s extremist government has not only demonstrated its true authoritarian colors, but also how susceptible it is to pressures at home and from abroad — which should give us hope that with the right approach, commitment, determination and fighting spirit the widespread damage it is inflicting can be contained and reversed.