What is NGO Monitor’s connection to the Israeli government?

The spearhead of the battle against Israeli human rights organizations, NGO Monitor, is run by a man who, at least for a period of time since its founding, was closely affiliated with the Prime Minister’s Office. On another front, the government is now targeting human rights NGOs’ tax status.

By Yossi Gurvitz and Noam Rotem

Hello, I have the honor of representing NGO Monitor, and I think that I will be the first speaker to talk from a point of view that is neither governmental nor quasi-governmental, but rather from, what is called: civil society.
— Gerald Steinberg speaking at the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, July 9, 2013.

Over the years, we have been following utterances, insinuations and rumors that Benjamin Netanyahu is so troubled by human rights organizations that he dedicates a significant portion of his time and energy to fighting them. That struggle has been documented on this blog and on another blog, 0139, in detail. This week, working on a tip, we found Gerald Steinberg’s resume from 2004, two years after he established NGO Monitor. In it, under “additional activities,” Steinberg testifies that he served as a “consultant [to the] Government of Israel,” and as a member of the “Steering Committee, Forum on Antisemitism, Office of the Prime Minister, Government of Israel.” On his Hebrew-language profile on the NGO Monitor website, Steinberg describes himself as a “consultant to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” (His English profile is missing that information.) In a profile attached to a 2006 op-ed, he is described as a consultant to the National Security Council, which is a part of the Prime Minister’s Office.

In other words, Gerald Steinberg claims that he works — or at least has worked — for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and that is long after he founded NGO Monitor. Why is that important? It is necessary to explain, first of all, what Steinberg and his organizations are trying to accomplish. We’ll start by defining an NGO: a non-governmental organization, which carries out work that governments have difficulty performing, or don’t want to perform. Such organizations are called “civil society organizations” in Israel, or sometimes, human rights organizations, according to their respective functions. They do the work the government cannot do, precisely because one of their central roles is to levy criticism against, or to reveal crimes committed by the government.

Naturally, governments have ambiguous relationships with such organizations. In Israel, it is unambiguous: in recent years the Jewish Right in Israel has launched a political war aimed at curbing civil society and human rights organizations’ ability to operate. They provide too much information about how the Israeli government actually operates, whether it’s exposing the apartheid regime that exists in the occupied territories, or about how the Israeli government is redistributing wealth in a way that the uppermost thousandth gets more at the expense of the rest of society. A series of laws are in the pipeline in the Knesset, the goals of which are to silence human rights and civil society organizations.

The target of the campaign, which NGO Monitor spearheads, was the New Israel Fund, which funds many such organizations. Netanyahu — who has said that Israel’s main enemies are The New York Times and Haaretz — would have loved to attack the NIF, but he knows that a direct attack against it and against civil society and human rights NGOs, either by him or by the government, wouldn’t carry much credibility, and would drag the government into a dirty fight, one that would make the government of Israel look too similar to the Putin government, and would further crack the already too-thin facade of a “democratic state.”

So instead of a direct attack, there was an indirect attack. It was carried out by a number of organizations that put on the masks of non-governmental organizations. But they weren’t. NGO Monitor, we saw, is run by a man who – at least in the organization’s early years – was a government employee or closely affiliated with the Prime Minister’s Office. The campaign’s central attack dog was “Im Tirzu,” but it relied too much on reports written by NGO Monitor. Im Tirzu is connected to Netanyahu: his point man, Yoav Horowitz — who today serves as Netanyahu’s go-to man at Israel’s Second Broadcast Authority — transferred NIS 74,180 to Im Tirzu in 2008 (Hebrew). Im Tirzu’s founding chairman, Ronen Shoval, said recently that he was offered a job as the bureau chief of the Prime Minister’s Office. Im Tirzu is the successor organization of the “reservists’ struggle” that came into existence following the Second Lebanon War, but that we know today was secretly run by Netanyahu’s bureau when he was the opposition leader.

A third organization, which portrays itself as a non-governmental organization but serves the government of Israel, is Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center. Shurat HaDin primarily serves as an attack dog overseas, especially against supporters of the boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) movement. (Recently they have been trying to sue an Australian professor, Jake Lynch, who refused to hire an Israeli, on the grounds that he violated Australia’s hate crimes law.) As I’ve pointed out in the past, relying on WikiLeaks cables, Shurat HaDin was actually directed by the Israeli intelligence and government. By the way, Shurat HaDin defines itself as a “Jewish human rights organization.”

Taking those facts and statements into account, such organizations might be defined as GONGOs (government operated non-governmental organizations), which is to say, government operated organizations that present themselves as non-governmental and independent. Going back to Steinberg’s testimony at the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, he almost reveals the method himself:

It took the government ministries a few years to understand that this is an existential war [being waged] against the State of Israel. It is de-legitimization in every regard, from the Bedouin, and what JNF-KKL supposedly does, they’re messaging and language of morality, war crimes, apartheid, all of those issues together. And that requires a response like in war, and unfortunately, I think that still hasn’t been understood in many places […]

It took many years to understand that this is an entire industry and that [we] counter attack. I think that [launching] counter attacks against the leading organizations isn’t easy for the government framework. With all due respect, and I respect the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency and other organizations — it needs to come from civil society. It’s NGO against NGO. If it’s Human Rights Watch, and if it’s Amnesty International, if it’s in the media, so there need to be organizations that address the media. It could be that there’s a place for cooperation, the exchange of information, and to build [joint] strategies between governmental and non-governmental bodies, but to ask a government to solve these problems, I think that isn’t realistic.”

So the Israeli government used dummy organizations. So much so that the founder of one organization boasts about her connections with Israeli intelligence, another worked with the Prime Minister’s Office, and a third organization received funds directly from a confidant of the prime minister.

It’s important to emphasize that the principal work of these dummy organizations is dealings with the Israeli public or Jews overseas. That is the modus operandi of hasbara organizations. Netanyahu wants to close ranks at home, by flooding the public discourse with fraudulent information in order to discredit civil society organizations, which appears to come from independent, unconnected organizations that are incidentally connected to him or to the government. In other words, those government-affiliated organizations — and let’s remember that Netanyahu and the government are the story here; Steinberg is a pawn — have adopted the exact same tactic they accuse civil society organizations of using: sock puppetry. Meaning, they say they are serving one agenda at the same time that, using various names, they are serving an entirely different aim — and they pollute the public discourse in a way that official government statements could never achieve. NGO Monitor, by the way, has a long history of polluting the public discourse by planting lies using sock puppetry. (Hebrew)

This is one front of Netanyahu’s war against a free Israeli society. On a second front, he is siccing government forces on civil society organizations. On NGO Monitor’s Hebrew-language donations page, it says that “donations to NGO Monitor are tax deductible in Israel.” We haven’t found the specific tax document, but we’ll believe them. In the past few weeks, the Israeli Tax Authority is trying to revoke the tax exempt status of a veteran human rights organization (which happens to be a shared, age-old goal of NGO Monitor), Physicians for Human Rights. Additionally, the Tax Authority sent a letter to human rights organization B’Tselem, informing it that it will not receive such status:

In the matter at hand, it appears that the organization’s declared, principal purpose is of a clearly political nature, and as such, touches on and deals with matters of public debate and/or politics.

In other words, criticism of the Israeli government and its actions is “of a clearly political nature” — but an organization whose purpose is to attack B’Tselem and similar organizations (“NGO against NGO”) – that is somehow not political. Meaning, political actions whose goal is to attack those who oppose the government, in the eyes of the Tax Authority, is not political. Using the Tax Authority against political opponents of the government is a well-known tool; among others, it was made famous by Richard Nixon.

The Netanyahu government’s attack against a free society in Israel is coming from two directions: the first is encouraging “concerned organizations” to attack civil society organizations; the second, is using the power of the authorities in order to suppress legitimate political activity. Benjamin Netanyahu is waging a war against Israeli society, using both deception and the power of government. The time has come for the Knesset — whose function is to oversee and supervise the government — to wake up. And the first thing it needs to do is to appoint an investigatory commission to look into the connections between the Israeli government and NGO Monitor, Im Tirzu and Shurat HaDin. If it created a committee to investigate police violence against settlers at Amona, then this is certainly a worthy subject.

NGO Monitor did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication. If one is received, it will be published here.

Following the publication of a version of this article in Hebrew, Meretz chairwoman and MK Zehava Galon submitted a parliamentary inquiry to the Prime Minister’s Office. She posed the following questions:

1. Has the Prime Minister’s Office directly or indirectly funded “NGO Monitor” or “Im Tirzu?”

2. If so, for what purposes were funds transferred? What were the sums transferred and in what years? Was a tender issued?

3. Is Mr. Gerald Steinberg employed by a government ministry or office as a private individual, as part of an organization or as another legal entity, or alternatively, was he employed in the past by a government office?

4. If so, in what capacity and during which years?

MK Galon also demanded that Knesset Legal Advisor Eyal Yanon clarify whether Steinberg perjured himself in front of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, and if so — what legal remedies exist.

Any developments will be updated here, if there are any.