If gov’t had its way, Israel would rightfully be on UN list of human rights abusers

By Hagai El-Ad

There is no factual basis for listing Israel alongside countries like Zimbabwe or Venezuela, but that is not thanks to the government’s efforts – which have fully pushed legislation against human rights NGOs; if the government actually had its way, then the recent condemnation of Israel by UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay would have been quite accurate.

The Foreign Ministry was quick to characterize as “absurd” the recent statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who grouped Israel together with the likes of Belarus, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and other countries in the dubious club of those that restrict the activities of civil society organizations. Israel, the only democratic country included on the list, was named as a result of a bill to restrict foreign-government funding to “political organizations” introduced last November. While the bill was approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu, he ultimately froze the bill, likely due to international pressure as well as the fact that the Attorney General warned it would not hold up in the High Court of Justice.

The truth is that the Foreign Ministry is right: Israel, inside the Green Line, does not have legal restrictions similar to those that exist in dictatorships, impeding on the activities of civil society organizations. The legal reality regarding the work of NGOs in Israel is still different. But if the legislative efforts initiated and led by Netanyahu, Lieberman and MKs Elkin, Kirschenbaum and Akunis had succeeded – well, in that case the High Commissioner’s statement may very well have been fairly accurate.

The Foreign Ministry should thus blame no one but the Israeli government itself, and especially the Foreign Minister. What Lieberman is now doing by criticizing Pillay is in fact trying to celebrate as an achievement the failure of his own party’s explicit legislative efforts to suppress the work of human rights organizations in Israel . After all, since the establishment of the current coalition government back in 2009, both Likud and Israel Beitenu competed with each other on leading the legislation drive against the activities of NGOs they wished to silence.

Some of the legislative initiatives that the government has been trying to promote – laws that if passed would have made Israel more like the countries that the Foreign Ministry now cries out against comparing Israel with, include: Manipulative taxation schemes targeting organizations that happen to be the ones criticizing government policies; preventing foreign funding from groups that the government wishes muted; requiring certain non-partisan, civil society organizations, to report to the Registrar of Political Parties (!); draconian restrictions (indeed, suspiciously similar to legislation in Ethiopia) on the permitted level of foreign governmental funding; not to mention the attempts to promote a politicized parliamentary inquiry committees against the activities of Israeli human rights organizations; the attempts to amend the Income Tax Law and to meddle with Israel’s Law of Associations, and much more.

This coalition government has invested a huge legislative effort in all of the above initiatives in recent years, an effort that if successful, would have bought Israel an unfortunate place of honor amongst the oppressive dictatorships that the High Commissioner condemned. But Israel not reaching that dubious place had nothing to do with the government, for it has initiated and supported these very efforts. In fact, it was the steadfast work of the very civil society organizations that the government targeted, as well as international condemnation and pressure, that revealed the truth behind these undemocratic legislative attempts and fought tirelessly against them.

Indeed, the word “absurd” is quite well-suited to describe all this. But not quite as the Foreign Ministry intended.

The author is the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). This op-ed was originally published in Hebrew at Ha’okets.org