Proposed law to probe Israeli rights groups prompts fierce criticism

Knesset legislation calling for an investigation of Israeli human rights groups has sparked a fierce argument over who is doing more to hurt Israel’s reputation: Human rights organizations critical of the Israeli government and army, or the politicians who want to investigate them for allegedly going too far.

By a vote of 47-16, the Knesset last week gave preliminary passage to proposed legislation calling for the establishment of a parliamentary panel to investigate the funding and activities of a long list of left-leaning human rights groups.

One of the co-sponsors, Faina Kirshenbaum of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, charges that the groups are working under the guise of human rights advocacy to discredit the Israel Defense Forces’ presence in the West Bank, criminalize its soldiers and encourage draft-dodging — with the overall aim of weakening the IDF and delegitimizing Israel.

“These groups provided material to the Goldstone commission and are behind indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world,” Kirshenbaum declared during a Knesset debate, referring to the U.N.-endorsed Goldstone report on the Gaza war, which among its findings included allegations of war crimes violations by Israel.

The heavy vote in favor of the legislation reflected widespread concern in Israel at the activities of human rights groups, some of which receive foreign goverment funds and whose goals seem potentially inimical to the national interest.

Much of the subsequent criticism was directed at the choice of mechanism to deal with the issue: a parliamentary committee in which politicians would be interrogating their political opponents.

After days of criticism for the “undemocratic” nature of the proposed investigatory committee, Lieberman invited cameras into the normally closed party caucus meeting Monday to show he had no intention of backing down.

In his remarks, he suggested that Israel’s delegitimizers rely on the subversive work of Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper; Yesh Din, a group that monitors the rule of law in the West Bank; and Yesh Gvul, an organization that defends Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank. He called the organizations “collaborators in terror.”

“There wasn’t a single meeting abroad where I spoke about delegitimization of Israel and people didn’t say look at what Haaretz wrote or what Yesh Din, Yesh Gvul or Yesh Batich published,” he said, the last name a derogatory play on words meaning “There is Zero.”

Critics — from both the left and right wings — have accused Lieberman of McCarthyism. They argue that establishing a parliamentary mechanism to hound political opponents is patently undemocratic and brings to mind the witch-hunting days of anti-communist fervor in the United States in the early 1950s.

Israeli law already requires full transparency on funding, most of the named NGOs are fully transparent, and there is a registrar of NGOs where funding information already is in the public domain, critics of the new legislation maintain.

NGO Monitor, an organization often harshly critical of left-leaning Israeli human rights groups, went so far as to publish an Op-Ed in JTA criticizing the proposed law as unhelpful and polarizing.

As for activities such as pointing out transgressions by IDF soldiers, opponents of the proposed law contend that such criticism shows the strength of Israeli democracy rather than casting aspersions on the IDF as a whole or bringing the country into disrepute. On the contrary, setting up a McCarthyist parliamentary committee would do far more damage to Israel’s good name, they argue.

The proposed law, wrote NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg, provides “more ammunition for Israel’s most ardent critics to proclaim the ‘death of Israeli democracy,’ further contributing to Israel’s isolation.”

Several of the singled-out groups monitor IDF activities in the West Bank. The groups say this is precisely what the role of civil society groups should be: ensuring that the occupation is as humane as possible. If their funding or activities contravene the law in any way, they should be dealt with by the police, not a politically weighted Knesset committee, they insist.

Several Likud leaders, including Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Michael Eitan and Reuven Rivlin, say they, too, are appalled by Lieberman’s approach.

“It’s a mistake to establish a parliamentary committee in which Knesset members will interrogate their opponents,” Meridor, a deputy prime minister, told Israel’s Channel 2. “It will turn our country into something it never was or ought to be.”

Critical pundits warn of a vicious circle: Threatened by a highly focused international campaign of delegitimization, they see Israel turning on itself, with figures like Lieberman attacking Israeli human rights organizations, thereby laying it open to further delegitimizing attacks.

There is a significant domestic political context to the proposed law. Lieberman’s move to take on the human rights organizations is part of a deliberate campaign aimed at displacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the natural leader of the Israeli right wing. The proposed Knesset legislation came a week after Lieberman publicly repudiated Netanyahu’s policies on reconciliation with Turkey and peace with the Palestinians.

The opposition by senior Likud members to Lieberman’s proposed investigatory committee gave Lieberman another opening to seize the right-wing mantle.

“These backsliders in the national camp, who are ready to sacrifice its interests, are responsible for the fact that the national camp has never ruled Israel even when we won elections,” Lieberman said, referring to Likudniks like Begin.

On the Turkish and Palestinian issues, Netanyahu failed to censure Lieberman, prompting commentators to criticize him for weak leadership. But he did not leave the foreign minister’s broadside against the Likud unanswered, arguing that his party is just as determined to fight organizations that act illegally against the state or the IDF, but that there are different ways of going about this.

“The Likud is a democratic and pluralistic party, and not a dictatorship of a single view,” Netanyahu said, sniping at Lieberman’s high-handed leadership of Yisrael Beitenu and insinuating at the kind of regime Lieberman might impose if he were to become prime minister.

Knesset member Yisrael Hasson, who left Yisrael Beiteinu in 2009 to join the centrist Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni, calls Lieberman a “foreign policy pyromaniac” who is cynically undermining Israeli foreign policy in a bid to enhance his domestic political standing.

Leslie Susser is JTA’s diplomatic correspondent in Jerusalem.