Thursday, February 24, 2011

How the NGO Transparency Bill Covers Up Its Supporters’ True Intentions

Now that the bill mandating Israeli NGOs to publicize donations received from foreign governmental entities has passed, it is time to look at the motives and the intentions of those who supported it – and these are anything but transparent.

The "transparency" campaign has been waged by the rightwing NGO Monitor ever since "Breaking the Silence" published its Gaza testimonies, and NGO Monitor's director, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, read the group's open acknowledgement to its European donors. NGO Monitor never investigated nor uncovered a single "hidden" donation to any of the NGOs the bill covers; what the organization learned is there for anybody to see. Prof. Steinberg has recently claimed that "In theory, Israeli NGOs should be covered by the existing reporting requirements for non-profits, but in practice, many political advocacy groups have found ways to avoid such transparency by registering under different frameworks, or avoiding any Israeli oversight mechanism." No names of groups are mentioned; if there are such groups, what does that have to do with the other groups – the ones he doesn't like – who have all registered as non-profits? Why should they suffer for the sins of the non-transparent groups? That is the sort of smoke-screen argument for which NGO Monitor is justly famous.

Still, one could think that it is not enough for Israeli NGOs to publish acknowledgements that are only noticed by a group like NGO Monitor; these acknowledgements should be larger or more available to the public. But isn't that the job of a group like NGO Monitor – to publicize those NGOs whose activities it doesn't like? Does a democratic society need anything more than that in terms of transparency?

And here we come back to the absurd claim that the present law is based on the "Foreign Agent Registration Act". There is no resemblance at all between the two, as I noted in my previous post. FARA requires that agents representing the interests, usually commercial, of foreign governments, institutions, political parties, and individuals, register with the US Government. Those agents are usually lobbying, public relations, or law firms . For example, a public relations firm registered when it was hired by the Israel Ministry of Tourism; a lobbying firm registered when it was hired by the the World Zionist Organization to influence members of the legislative and the executive branches to effect an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code. I can guarantee you that more Israelis know about the European funding of human rights NGOs than Americans know about the lobbying efforts of the World Zionist Organization. And if one looks at the list of foreign agents registered in FARA, I couldn't find a single NGO.

I imagine that Prof. Steinberg knows all this, just as he knows that the claim that the bill is based on FARA is not to be taken seriously. He knows that the issue is not one of "transparency" and never has been. No, the purpose of the transparency bill is to delegitimize the NGOs, by tarring them with the brush of "representatives of foreign governments". These are not "human rights NGOs" or even groups with a political agenda; these are political lobbyists for foreign powers – hence, the comparison to FARA. That also explains why, unlike FARA, the Israeli law requires NGOs not only to report to the government but to publicize on their own websites and in their literature the sources of their funding – to uncover their "shame", as it were. Indeed, the original bill would force them to announce at every event what the source of funding for that event was. Like the Surgeon General's warning, the announcement requirement is to deter and to stigmatize. What does this have to do with FARA?

And here we arrive at the dishonesty of those behind the campaign. I do not doubt Prof. Steinberg's sincerity when he writes "Europe tries to interfere with and manipulate the legitimate outcome of Israeli elections." If so, then why allow the NGOS to apply for foreign governmental grants? Wouldn't it be better simply to outlaw contributions from foreign governments, if they constitute such an anti-democratic interference? If these organizations are hurting Israel, and are doing so with foreign governmental money, why not go the route of India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which empowers the government to determine which contributions can be accepted and which cannot by NGOs?

Outlawing such grants may be too much even for the current rightwing government, and it would certainly hurt Israel's image abroad. By focusing on the bogus issue of transparency, NGO Monitor and the Knesset can avoid discussing the real issue that should be discussed: the propriety of soliciting money from foreign governments, individuals, organizations, A first stab at that discussion was attempted in today's Haaretz by settler leader, Israel Harel, who chastised the NGOs for seeking foreign assistance, which offended his patriotism. Coming from Harel, one of the architects of the settlement enterprise, which has received tens of millions of dollars from foreign sources – sources that are completely opaque to the Israeli public – that may seem ridiculous. But his point is legitimate and the question is worth debating. A true democracy would open that debate, a debate that would encompass all sectors. The reason why Israel does not conduct such a debate is because it prefers to hide its true intentions, to trick itself into believing that it is no worse than the United States or other democracies. But trust me -- when this watered-down bill fails to deliver the goods, FARA will give way to FCRA

In short, as in every case when it acts improperly, Israel has to engage in massive self-deception and false analogies with decent countries with which it likes to compare itself.

Hence, the lack of "transparency" of the motives of those behind the bill – even to themselves.


1 comment:

rootless_cosmopolitan said...

Nice post. You conclude with 'the lack of "transparency" of the motives of those behind the bill'. It's not just their motives, it's their funding as well! Unlike the NGOs it seeks to delegitimate, NGO Monitor has never, as far as I'm aware, come clean as to its sources of funding. Perhps you can put me right?