If it quacks like a duck: NGO Monitor’s ties to the Israeli government

NGO Monitor is not a right-wing organization in the classic sense of the word. It has supported every Israeli government. Yet in all its years, the group has not seen fit to research right-wing organizations working to bolster the occupation.

By Sarit Michaeli

Illustrative photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Illustrative photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

NGO Monitor doth protest too much, methinks. A recent oped published by Bet Michael in Haaretz characterized the organization as “extreme right wing” — a description it was none too pleased with. The organization prefers to describe itself as “an independent and nonpartisan research institute.” But as we all know, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck – it’s a duck.

As an organization that walks the walk and talks the talk of Israel’s government, which enjoys a wonderfully close relationship with the government, provides research and ideas for use by the government, and which receives generous diplomatic assistance from it, NGO Monitor has relinquished the right to complain when it is broadly viewed as a governmental duck, or in other words: a government surrogate group.

True, NGO Monitor is not a right-wing organization in the classic sense of the word. It has supported every Israeli government, including that led by the centrist Kadima party, and recently allied itself with self-appointed foreign minister, Yair Lapid. However, as Israel is currently ruled by an extreme right-wing government intent on entrenching the occupation and the settlement project, and while the political center is either invested in maintaining the occupation or does not lift a finger to end it, these are mere semantics. In essence, NGO Monitor is a partner in the Israeli government’s war against NGOs that resist the occupation.

This pretense of “independence” serves both sides. The prime minister and deputy foreign minister approach Europe demanding it stops funding and meeting with groups like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, armed with information provided by an ostensibly independent think tank. Legislative initiatives like the NGO Law, as well as its previous incarnation, cemented the fallacy that transparent funding from friendly governments is unacceptable, while the flow of dollars from Jewish tycoons such as American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson or Irving Moskowitz, or from Christian evangelists is fine and desirable. NGO Monitor rightly claims credit as one of the main instigators of this legislation.

NGO Monitor’s claim to be an “a-political and independent” group that promotes “a public debate on the reports and activities of NGOs active in the Arab-Israeli conflict” is suspiciously focused only on one side of the political debate. In all its years, the group has not seen fit to research right-wing organizations working to bolster the occupation, although the sources of their funding could certainly benefit from some transparency. Are right-wing and pro-settlement groups like Elad, Regavim, Ad Kan, and Honenu — some of which enjoy public funding while others enjoy waivers allowing them to obscure the identity of donors — unworthy of inspection?

This “research,” publicized in symbiosis with the Israeli government, is a tour de force of McCarthyist techniques focused on picking and choosing allegedly damning details about Israeli and Palestinian human rights and civil society groups. Presented out of context, these carefully selected details are used to hurl accusations of terrorism, demonization of Israel, and anti-Semitism.

Recently, the vilification has been compounded by outright diplomatic work, taken together with the populist right wing in Europe – which has its own reasons for opposing financial support for Palestinians – to oppose European funding for civil society in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. Last month Israeli embassy in Switzerland hosted NGO Monitor representative Shaun Sacks and Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Emannuel Nahshon, as part of lobbying efforts in the Swiss parliament. The group, which is so eager to criticize “political advocacy” by human rights organizations has no qualms about hiring a lobbyist in Brussels or devoting a department in Jerusalem to this end. To prove NGO Monitor’s independence, Shahar cites instances in which the organization has not seen eye to eye with politicians.

Indeed, the perfect agreement with the government’s goal to perpetuate the occupation is sometimes marred by tactical differences when eager ministers or MKs act too blatantly. An initiative by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) to cancel tax benefits for nonprofits, or Netanyahu’s recent proposal to entirely ban foreign government funding for certain organizations, were criticized by NGO Monitor — a more sophisticated player. Instead of relying on brute force to try and throttle human rights groups, it is going straight to the source: European capitals, where it works in close collaboration with Israel’s Foreign Ministry to dry us up by closing the tap. We must not let that hold us back from our struggle to end the occupation.

Sarit Michaeli is B’Tselem’s international advocacy officer.