Last updated: 20 November, 2011

Israel Prime Minister stalls contested NGO laws

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put the brakes on bills to limit foreign funding of Israeli human rights groups amid growing pressure from critics abroad, Haaretz newspaper said Sunday.

The daily said Netanyahu had instructed the indefinite postponement of hearings into draft legislation that would cap foreign donations to NGOs seeking “to influence Israel’s diplomatic and security agenda” or to carry out political activities.

The postponement, which will keep the bills out of parliament, comes after the ministerial committee on legislation approved the draft laws, effectively handing them a government endorsement, despite domestic and international criticism.

An Israeli official confirmed the delay, without linking it directly to he premier.

“The whole process is now frozen pending a discussion in the full cabinet and such a discussion has yet to be scheduled,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The first bill, sponsored by Ophir Akunis of Netanyahu’s Likud party, limits contributions to NGOs from foreign governments and international organisations such as the United Nations to 20,000 shekels ($5,400, 3,940 euros) a year.

The second proposal, by a lawmaker from the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu party, would levy a 45 percent tax on such donations.

Haaretz said that both the United States and the European Union are pressing Israel’s government to scrap the bills.

They are also strongly opposed by local groups such as The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and settlement watchdog Peace Now.

“They don’t like the problems revealed by Israeli human rights organisations and rather than address the issues, they’re trying to dry up funding for some of the most important and courageous groups in Israel,” Peace Now posted on its website.

“The current government is leading an attack on the foundations of democracy,” ACRI wrote. “ACRI will continue fighting for civil liberties, social justice, and human rights.”

After their approval last week, the two bills were set to be merged into one and sent back to the ministerial committee on legislation for another vote. If approved, the compound bill was then to head to the full Knesset for a preliminary reading before three round of votes.