On September 8, 2010 the European Parliament debated an oral question on “Draft bill on Israeli NGOs.” The “bill” refers to proposed Israeli Knesset legislation to increase the transparency in foreign government funding of Israeli NGOs. The Oral Question that initiated the debate, as well as many of the comments during the discussion, were premised on a preliminary version of the proposed legislation. The bill had been substantively revised in the months between the submission of the question by the MEPs and the Parliamentary discussion.

The EP debate reflected a wide range of views – some highly critical of Israel, and others who understand and agreed that the lack of EU transparency in NGO funding is problematic. The discussion also showed that some MEPs are concerned with the question of EU interference with the legislation of a democracy, particularly regarding a matter where the EU is an interested party (as a major funder for highly politicized Israeli NGOs). Finally, some MEPs expressed wider reservations about how EU funds are spent in the Middle East.

In contrast, the MEPs that placed this issue on the agenda and others stated their intense disagreement with the proposed Israeli law, and the transparency requirement for all funding from foreign governments. Interestingly, they also referred to Israel’s status as a democracy as the basis for their criticism, while failing to address the absence of transparency in EU funding, which is inconsistent with democratic principles.

This group of MEPs also claimed that the law is superfluous and biased because it applies to certain NGOs, but not others. A subgroup of MEPs, repeating a suggestion circulated by Israeli NGOs that would be impacted by the funding transparency legislation, maintained that the law was not comprehensive enough, as it excluded donations from private donors. Another group of MEPs took a more radical position, alleging that the “current climate” in Israel hinders the work of groups that they define as “civil society.”

Additional views were presented expressing concern about the impact of the European parliamentary debate on renewed peace negotiations and the EU’s credibility, in particular if it was perceived as mere Israel bashing.  Others mentioned EU-member states with similar transparency legislation (Poland, Finland, and the Czech Republic).

Commissioner Füle concluded the discussion by categorically rejecting the suggestion that the Association Agreement would be affected by disagreements over the new Israeli legislation. This is an important statement, preventing efforts by NGOs and others to leverage Israel-EU cooperation in order to force changes in Israeli domestic policy.

Selections from MEP statements during the debate

The excerpts highlight issues that have been emphasized in NGO Monitor’s research. These include the importance of transparency in governmental funding for NGOs and the danger of political manipulation harming EU-Israel relations.

  • Charles Tannock, (United Kingdom, European Conservatives and Reformists): “Mr. President, like all sovereign states, Israel has an absolute right to supervise, monitor and regulate as it sees fit the activities of domestic and international NGOs which operate on its territory (…) Israel is a parliamentary democracy, characterised by a vigorous civil society in which all shades of non-violent opinion can be openly represented and discussed. NGOs operating in Israel have a freedom unparalleled anywhere else in the Middle East, which is generally a repressive environment for civil society.”
  • Diane Dodds (United Kingdom, non-attached member): “Mr President, I am deeply disturbed by the content and tone of some of the contributions to this debate today. As direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority make a faltering start, I would urge this House to be cautious in its remarks, at a time of great sensitivity in the Middle East. (…)Turning to the legislation in question, we should acknowledge that the Israeli Government has worked with its Parliament to address concerns. (…). The remaining measures are focused on applying the principles of openness, accountability and transparency to the NGO sector. NGOs across the world regularly advocate these as key principles for healthy public life in a democratic society. (…)That debate represents interference in the internal affairs of a state outside the European Union and on a matter which is already being addressed. Many in Israel will conclude that the motivation for this is born of anti-Israeli sentiment when, at a time of peace negotiations, we should be a source of encouragement for those negotiators.”
  • Ró?a Gräfin von Thun und Hohenstein (Poland, Group of the European People’s Party – Christian Democrats): “(…)I would like to share with you that for many years I was Director-General of a Polish NGO which promoted Poland’s joining the European Union, (…)and of course we were obligated to declare the sources of our money and the sums we received. This was also true regarding all funds which we got from the EU budget. It would never occur to me to see this as any kind of discrimination or as hampering us in any way.”
  • Fiorello Provera (Italy, Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group ): “Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, this discussion confirm many prejudices against the State of Israel, prejudices that continue to influence Middle East policy of the European Union. (…) We should instead discuss how to make our procedures for funding NGOs and UN agencies operating in the region more transparent and verifiable. This would erase any doubt regarding our political positions (…)”
  • Sari Essayah (Finland, Group of the European People’s Party – Christian Democrats): “Do we have a problem with transparency? Hopefully not. In most EU Member States we have legislation about NGO funding and its transparency as well as the funding of political parties. In Finland, for example, we have just passed a law about the funding of political parties by which we wanted to prohibit all kinds of foreign funding except from European sister-parties. We do not want foreign forces to be able to buy influence in Finnish political life (…) So the European Parliament should support Israeli legislators in ensuring transparency rather than attacking with false accusations, and interfering in, a democratic legislative process. Are we, as Europeans, fully aware that EU-funded NGOs’ projects do not always promote peace, but rather work against mutual understanding and create more distrust and hostility between Israelis and Palestinians? So this new legislation is important for European taxpayers as well, so that we will know how our money is spent in that area.”