Categorized | Middle East

‘Breaking The Silence’ probe fuels NGO reporting bid

By  Gerald M. Steinberg
Gerald Steinberg

Gerald M. Steinberg

JERUSALEM — The revelations that the Israeli political organization Breaking the Silence (BTS) was gathering sensitive or potentially classified information on the IDF caught many Israelis – including me, a long-time critic of this fringe NGO – off guard. Like others, I knew that the handful of activists in this group promote anonymous allegations of terrible war crimes. I also knew that this message was repeated in front of audiences around the world, at times to those who simply hate Israel and, more frequently, talking to people with little or no understanding of reality in the region.

The report aired on Israel’s Channel 2 showed the group interviewing former soldiers about IDF methods, tactics and equipment. Unlike the claims made by some BTS supporters – including the CEO of the New Israel Fund, a BTS core funder – the response is not a “smear campaign” and should not be casually dismissed.  If nothing else, the revelations of gross misjudgment by BTS leaders should give these funders pause and lead to a review of their high-stakes decision-making processes.

To make their arguments seem reasonable, BTS activists and their supporters systematically strip away the context of Palestinian terror and thousands of rocket attacks, leaving only a highly exaggerated and fictitious version of Israeli responses. But this ideological crusade, disguised by the language of human rights, had little to do with the activities depicted on Israel Channel 2.

The real problem with BTS is the money they have, provided by irresponsible donors, including European governments and the New Israel Fund (NIF). Together, these funders give over $1 million every year to a handful of radical activists under the official façade of promoting human rights and international law among Israelis. With this money, BTS holds events in churches, parliaments and universities, promoting specious allegations of Israeli “war crimes”.

For the European governments, the “kosher certificate” provided by the NIF to BTS is enough to justify much larger grants, which go unsupervised, and are renewed year after year. NGOs in general are a big business in Israel, and external funding for the radical political groups is very controversial. Because of its central role, the NIF is seen by many Israelis as a self-selected and externally based alternative government to Israel’s elected leadership, operating outside any of the democratic checks and balances. A small group of NIF officials meeting in total secrecy provide seed money and help their NGOs file applications and gain access to the European state funders, which then increase the existing budget many times over.

For a significant part of the Israeli public, the powerful but undemocratic power of fringe groups like BTS, and the damage that they do in helping to demonize the Jewish state, has reached the boiling point. Responding to the unparalleled sums of money involved, and the secrecy that envelopes European funding processes for Israeli political NGOs, Justice Minister Shaked advanced legislation aimed at making these donations more transparent. (It is important to note this law would not affect private donors like the NIF which are inherently different than governments that infringe on Israel’s sovereignty.) Unlike other proposals, this one does not involve selective taxes or other penalties. It is a form of transparency, and shares elements with America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act and congressional requirements.

Israel cannot legislate for Europe, but it can regulate Israeli NGOs, and reassert the core principle that only Israeli citizens can decide our future. But legislation on NGOs, even for Israel, is inherently problematic – a much better solution would take the form of mutually acceptable funding guidelines – such as those proposed by NGO Monitor. These guidelines would create the due diligence, transparency and accountability that has been sorely lacking in the transfer of funds to political NGOs, and that has given irresponsible fringe groups such as Breaking the Silence the resources to cause major harm.

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 Gerald M. Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute. He will be speaking in the SDSU “Israel in the 21st Century” lecture series on April 11.  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the first and last name of the letter writer plus his/her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

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