US ambassador underlines concern over new legislation, urges justice minister to ‘protect free expression and peaceful dissent’

Justice Ayelet Shaked speaks at a press in Tel Aviv on January 11, 2016. (Flash90)
Justice Ayelet Shaked speaks at a press in Tel Aviv on January 11, 2016. (Flash90)


Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Monday said the US “doesn’t have to worry” about the NGO bill she is advancing through the Knesset that would require non-governmental organizations to declare funding from foreign countries.

The proposed legislation came under fire earlier in the day from US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who expressed “the US government’s concerns on the matter” following a meeting with Shaked on Sunday.

“I find it very strange that foreign governments are sending their long arms into an internal legislative process,” Shaked said in response to reports that the EU was funding lobbying efforts against the bill.

“I was happy to meet with the American ambassador, and I came away believing that their concern is genuine. But they don’t have to be concerned. Israel is a strong and lively democracy, one that doesn’t need the intervention of other states in internal legislation,” the justice minister said.

“The US does not have to worry,” Shaked said. “Our door is always open to dialog with friends.”

Earlier in the day Shapiro highlighted Washington’s concern over the controversial bill she’s pushing in parliament. A recent statement from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv noted “the chilling effect on NGO activities” that the proposed legislation would have.

US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, December 9, 2014. (Matty Stern/US Embassy)
US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, December 9, 2014. (Matty Stern/US Embassy)

Ambassador Shapiro “sought more information” about the draft legislation from the justice minister, and “noted the US government’s concerns on the matter,” according to the embassy. He reiterated that “a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.”

Almost all of the groups that will be affected by the bill identify with the political left, as those NGOs receive funding from foreign governments, whereas those on the political right are mainly funded by private donors, who would not be subject to scrutiny by the bill.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed that the United States had expressed concerns to the Netanyahu government about the measure, rejecting Shaked’s move to liken her bill to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, which deals with registering foreign interest lobbyists. On Monday, the US Embassy sought to explain how the two pieces of legislation differ.

“As a general matter, US law imposes no limits, restrictions, or transparency requirements on the receipt of foreign funding by NGOs operating in the United States, other than those generally applicable to all Americans,” the statement said.

“In contrast, the draft Israeli law would target NGOs simply because they are funded principally by foreign government entities. That is not how the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) works. FARA requires individuals or organizations to register as foreign agents only if they engage in certain specified activities at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity,” the statement added. “As a result, it does not create the chilling effect on NGO activities that we are concerned about in reviewing the draft Israeli NGO law.”

The bill has riled politicians and political activists in Israel and abroad.

“The cabinet decision to approve the twisted NGO bill is a bullet between the eyes for Israel’s standing in the world,” Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said last month. “Our enemies are giving a big thank you to the Israeli government, which has put us on the same level with the darkest countries in the world.”

American and Israeli left-wing groups have reportedly been planning an “ad hoc coalition” to attempt to block the bill from becoming law.

As reported by The Times of Israel