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The Israeli government’s so-called “transparency bill”, which unfairly targets Israeli human rights NGOs, continues to raise major alarms among Israel’s friends. Yesterday, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told Israel’s government that the US is concerned about the bill and its “chilling effect on NGO activities.”
Led by Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the bill has already been approved by the Israeli cabinet, and now needs to pass a series of three votes in the Knesset to become law. That means there is still time left to stop it.
Israel’s governing coalition has a very tenuous hold on power, with a Knesset majority of just one vote. It relies in part on the 10 seats held by the moderate centrist Kulanu party. Last week, party leader Moshe Kahlon announced that Kulanu would support the bill. But scrutiny has fallen on several members of the party who have records of close ties to the human rights NGO community. Could they be convinced to oppose the bill?
In an op-ed today in Haaretz, Uri Keidar, the Chairman of the Israeli Labor Party Youth Wing, spotlights Kulanu MKs Rachel Azaria and Roy Folkman. He points out that Azaria “has based her entire career on liberal values” and led an NGO that was a grantee of the New Israel Fund, while Folkman worked for Sikkuy, which promotes civic equality for Arab-Israelis. Keidar writes, “As the history of Israeli democracy unfolds before our eyes, Azaria, Folkman and their likes need to choose a side. It takes a lot of courage, taking a brave step and single-handedly going against your coalition partners and party leader, but isn’t this what principled politics is all about?”
The same question should be asked of another Kulanu MK — former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren. Before Kahlon announced Kulanu’s position, Oren stated publicly that “As someone who has worked all his life to improve the foreign relations of the State of Israel, my conscience does not allow me to vote for the NGO bill as it is formulated today.” As ambassador, Oren spoke often about the commitment to democracy and shared liberal values that form the backbone of the US-Israel relationship. Will he stand up for those values now that they are under threat?
This vote is a reminder that the Israeli right does not have a total monopoly on power. Hardliners like Shaked can’t hammer through their agenda without the tacit acceptance of moderates who know the importance of civil rights and free speech. Whether those moderates are willing to stand up for their principles remains an open question.