Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Plumbing of Israeli Democracy: FARA

In recent months we have been warned repeatedly about the erosion of democratic freedoms in Israel. One of the top alleged dangers is a proposed law requiring transparency about foreign sources of funding. The New York Times recently gave the NGOs a platform to explain the danger:

Perhaps the most alarming sign to rights advocates was a preliminary vote in Parliament supporting a bill that called for groups that received support from foreign governments to register with Israel’s political parties’ registrar, which could change their tax status and hamper their ability to raise money abroad. It swept a preliminary vote in the 120-seat Parliament in February with 58 in favor and 11 against. Proponents say the bill is needed to improve transparency. “Up until now they have enjoyed a halo effect as highly regarded human rights watchdogs,” said Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli political scientist and president of NGO Monitor, a conservative watchdog group financed by American Jewish philanthropists. “They were not seen as political organizations with biases and prone to false claims. Now, they are coming under some kind of scrutiny.”But rights organizations say that they are already required to list publicly the sources of their funding, and that the bill is actually intended to stifle dissent.

Asher Fredman, an aide involved in the legislative process, reports:

While ignoring the issues of transparency and foreign interests, the NGOs have focused most of their attacks on a clause that was dropped in the early negotiations over the bill. The clause would have removed tax-exempt status, intended for organizations "promoting the public good," from organizations heavily engaged in Israel's most contentious political debates. Whatever the merits of the clause, its fate demonstrates the robustness of Israel's admittedly imperfect parliamentary democracy.

Sound reasonable to me. The process of legislation in a democracy is structured to enable changes so that the final result reflect the positions of different groups. This doesn't mean that everyone gets everything they want; some players will be called upon to adapt, even if they'd prefer not. Feldman describes how the NGOs expressed their dislike of this aspect:
The bill, largely modeled on longstanding US legislation known as the FARA Act, was first discussed at a Knesset conference on foreign government funding. The organizers, in the spirit of democratic discussion, offered the leaders of five of the most powerful NGOs, the NIF, B'Tselem, ACRI, Adalah and Gisha, an open platform. All refused to take part. The NGOs then contacted MKs from the Left and warned them against participating. The proposed legislation would expand the funding information that NGOs must report, require timelier reporting, and ensure that this information is readily available to the public. Some NGOs already meet these standards of transparency; most do not.
What's not clear is how this legislation came to be portrayed as anti-democratic. After all, it's apparently based on the FARA Act, and American law. Here is the relevant section from the website of the United States Department of Justice:
FARA is short for the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended, 22 U.S.C. § 611 et seq
The purpose of FARA is to insure that the U.S. Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws. In 1938, FARA was Congress' response to the large number of German propaganda agents in the pre-WWII U.S..

The term also includes foreign political parties, a person or organization outside the United States, except U. S. citizens, and any entity organized under the laws of a foreign country or having its principal place of business in a foreign country.

1. The Act requires every agent of a foreign principal, not otherwise exempt, to register with the Department of Justice and file forms outlining its agreements with, income from, and expenditures on behalf of the foreign principal. These forms are public records and must be supplemented every six months.
2. The Act also requires that informational materials (formerly propaganda) be labeled with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal. The agent must provide copies of such materials to the Attorney General.
3. Any agent testifying before a committee of Congress must furnish the committee with a copy of his most recent registration statement.
4. The agent must keep records of all his activities and permit the Attorney General to inspect them.

One must register within ten days of agreeing to become an agent and before performing any activities for the foreign principal.

A cursory scanning seems to indicate that the Israeli version will be less intrusive and narrower than the American original. Interesting how the NYT missed that angle of the story.


NormanF said...

Ya'acov, its amusing the very NGOs in Israel that call the loudest for public accountability and transparency are the same NGOs that fight tooth and nail to have such a standard applied to them. And what is wrong with it? Israeli political parties are already bound by it and there is no reason it is anti-democratic to apply it to Israeli NGOs - all the moreso relevant in view of the fact most of them receiving substantial funding from foreign governments and foundations. So yes, if that is their main source of funding they should be compelled to file financial disclosure reports and other relevant information so Israelis can see why they advocate the positions they do. Such legislation is long overdue in Israel.

Carrie said...

How likely is it that this watered down FARA legislation will pass in Israel? When is the official vote?

Anonymous said...

here is Hawkeye of CiFWatch-Fame reporting on a lecture by Professor Steinberg.

Yaacov said...


I don't know. Legislation can take years, depending on its complexity and the political constellation. Sometime it takes less, but a process of a year or two is probably fast.