Australian TV oversimplifies Israel’s NGO challenge

February 11, 2016 by Aaron Kalman
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January 29 segment, aired on ABC Australia’s 7:30 show, is a prime example of how, too many times, stories about the Arab-Israeli conflict are oversimplified.

Aaron Kalman

Aaron Kalman

Rather than serious debate on issues, networks bolster left and right wing extremists, apparently preferring colorful mudslinging over substantial, fact-base debates of core democratic values. In this case, the issues of accountability and transparency of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were pushed aside when political activists were given screen time to recycle their recycled slogans.

For decades political non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Israel have received tens of millions of dollars from the European Union and foreign governments, who use civil society to influence Israel’s policies. This has created significant opposition, and a legislative proposal launched by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked placed this issue in the center of Israel’s public debate. And this debate has engaged not only Israelis, but also diplomats and world media, including Australia’s public channel.

The issues are complex, reflecting the fact that foreign NGO funding poses a major challenge for Israel. The unprecedented scale of outside interference through massive grants to political NGOs is unique, and the question magnified because the funds are used to influence the policies of a democratically elected government.In 2012-2014, for example, 27 highly political Israeli NGOs received a total of NIS 261 million – AUD 93 million– in grants and donations. Sixty-five percent of this (AUD 61 million) came from governments, through direct and indirect funding mechanisms. Twenty of these NGOs received over 50% of their funding from governments, and a handful can thank foreign governments for more than 90% of their budget.

In Europe, where most of this money originates, NGOs are viewed as important vehicles for exercising the normative or “soft power” that officials have defined as the central dimension of their foreign policy. However, in many cases, when Israel is involved, these NGOs go far beyond human rights and other legitimate agendas. Instead, they promote demonisation of Israel or anti-peace BDS campaigns officially rejected by the donor countries. Rather than representing “civil society,” these organisations are waging a political war, abusing terms like “war crimes” and “apartheid” under the façade of human rights.

This is the background to Shaked’s bill, but it is completely missing from ABC’s segment. The report, attempting to portray “both sides,” interviewed activists from two of the fringe NGOs: Breaking the Silence on the left and Im Tirzu on the right. They do not reflect Israel’s mainstream, which repudiates both. This failure to provide context could easily mislead viewers into concluding that the only alternatives are the two extreme groups that were given the stage.

In the program, without any critical perspective, Breaking the Silence was portrayed as a “human rights” organisation concerned with democracy and improving Israel. In reality, this NGO is run by 10 activists with a $1million budget from Europe, who do many of their activities outside of Israel, falsely portraying the Israeli army as criminal. Their events in churches, universities and national parliaments featured unconfirmed “anonymous testimony” alleging systematic immorality by soldiers. These activities resulted in criticism from Israeli media and politicians from the right, center and left, and added fuel to the debate on foreign funding for NGOs.

At one point, a Breaking the Silence activist tells the camera that Shaked’s bill will silence Israel’s civil society. Yet, there are some 40,000 registered Israeli NGOs – many politically active – but only a few dozen receive foreign government funding. In other words, the legislation would affect less than 1% of the country’s NGOs. Despite these facts, Breaking the Silence’s hyperbole remained unchallenged.

Also Im Tirzu, the right-wing group interviewed by ABC, fails to provide the audience with a mainstream perspective. For months, Im Tirzu has accused groups funded  by foreign governments, and influential individuals supporting these organizations, of being “moles” and undermining Israel on behalf of those foreign states. Im Tirzu’s campaign video was so aggressive that Israel’s Deputy Attorney-General opened an investigation into whether this NGO was inciting to violence. He decided not to prosecute the group, but stressed that the campaign  was “ugly and very problematic and that it would have been better if it had not been posted.”

Again, this context was missing from the report. Many Israelis support stronger transparency requirements, while others stricter NGO regulations. This does not prevent them from openly disagreeing with Im Tirzu and its message. However, as core issues were ignored the controversial campaign became the only reason ABC mentioned for supporting such measures.

Regardless of the outcome of this legislation, Israel is dealing with serious questions regarding transparency, accountability and foreign meddling in its domestic affairs through NGOs, and civil debate is needed. There are alternative solutions to legislation. For instance, NGO Monitor has proposed funding guidelines to European and Israeli senior officials, encouraging them to formulate mutually acceptable rules – but this, too, was ignored.

Israel’s legislate, courts, and other democratic frameworks will have to find solutions. Whatever the result, ABC’s program did a disservice to viewers. Featuring two extreme NGOs might be good for ratings, but it is simplistic and does little to inform viewers of the real issues.

 

Aaron Kalman is the foreign media coordinator at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute, and a former Israeli emissary in Sydney, Australia

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