Why Michael Oren Opposes the Anti-NGO Bill

Benjy Cannon Image
Benjy Cannon
on February 11, 2016

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Earlier this week, the Israeli NGO Bill passed its first reading in the Knesset. It still has a few more hurdles to clear before becoming law, but all indications points to its eventual passage. However, the bill picked up a high-level detractor: former Israeli ambassador to the United States, MK Michael Oren.

Oren has previously criticized the bill, and he voted against it this past week. In doing so, he argued that the bill would constitute a strategic threat to Israel’s relations with the West by “downgrading Israeli democracy in the eyes of the world.” Oren, as a former ambassador, understands that Israel’s support from around the world comes from the core democratic values it shares with the United States and European countries. He also understands the danger to Israel posed by the abandonment of its friends and allies.

The NGO Bill isn’t the only iteration of this challenge. Oren used the same language of “strategic threat” to describe his support for the compromise reached by Women of the Wall and the Israeli government over an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. As he saw it, the ongoing tension there risked a serious schism with the American Jewish community and ultimately, with the United States itself. His take on why is enormously instructive:

The former ambassador pointed to a proposal being discussed in the Knesset at the time that showed him how explosive Israeli religion and state issues could be in the US: a Yisrael Beytenu bill that would make conversions to Judaism easier for non-Jewish immigrants eligible for the Law of Return, but close the door to Conservative and Reform converts … The bill “disappeared” after eight Jewish senators signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that if the bill passes, it will “have an immediate impact on the US-Israel strategic relationship,” Oren said.

Oren’s admission that destructive Israeli policy can threaten Israel’s strategic position by affecting its standing in the world is an opening for Israel’s friends worried about its future. It means there are powerful Israeli politicians — even in the ruling coalition — who understand the stakes of the ongoing erosion of Israel’s democracy. But that concern can’t stop at the green line. Ban-Ki Moon, Ambassador Dan Shapiro and the European Union have issued increasingly dire warnings about the danger posed by the occupation.

While I have some hesitation about reducing the critique of the occupation to a “strategic threat,” more and more of Israel’s friends are speaking out about the damage it’s doing to Israel’s standing in the world, its security, and ultimately its Jewish and democratic viability. For everyone’s sake, I hope it’s the next strategic threat that Michael Oren and other like minded MKs start worrying about.

Benjy Cannon is the 2015-2016 Mikva Fellow at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @benjycannon