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Document selected : O-0046/2010

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O-0046/2010 (B7-0319/2010)

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PV 08/09/2010 - 12
CRE 08/09/2010 - 12

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Debates
Wednesday, 8 September 2010 - Strasbourg OJ edition

12. Draft bill on Israeli NGOs (debate)
Video of the speeches
PV
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  President. – The next item is the debate on the oral question to the Commission by Franziska Katharina Brantner and Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group, Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, Alexandra Thein, Ivo Vajgl, Baroness Sarah Ludford and Leonidas Donskis, on behalf of the ALDE Group, Véronique De Keyser, on behalf of the S&D Group, and Marie-Christine Vergiat, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group, on the draft bill on Israeli NGOs (O-0046/2010 - B7-0319/2010).

 
  
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  Franziska Katharina Brantner, author. – Mr President, I am here as a friend of democracy and I am also here as a friend of Israeli democracy. It is because I worry about Israeli democracy that we tabled a question before the summer about a law that would apply to Israeli NGOs, which resembled some of the laws we know from other less democratic parts of this world. Part of that law was about including NGOs in the register of political parties and taking away their tax exemption status. That was deeply worrying for us.

Happily, we noted that this has been changed and removed, but unfortunately, the law still foresees a draft law to further increase transparency regarding money that comes from foreign political entities. It does not require the same from private donors, which we find very worrying, and specifically addresses the European Union as one of the donors, when it comes to people supporting that law.

The EU is one of the targets of the new law because a lot of people in Israel who do not necessarily like democracy or human rights think that the EU supports project NGOs that go against the interests of Israel, without actually defining what these interests are.

We are deeply worried and we would like to know what you think this would mean for EU funding? How do you think we should react to it? And can we not at least expect the same transparency rules for every donor – private or public, from the EU or any other country – when it comes to NGOs in Israel?

 
  
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  Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, author. – Mr President, since I cosigned the oral question to the Commission on the new Israeli ‘NGO transparency bill’ – as it is referred to by the Israeli NGO which calls itself NGO Monitor – the bill has been considerably softened, as Franziska Brantner has just explained. My group and I welcome these changes. It is no longer required of all recipients of foreign funding for the purpose of political activities in Israel to register under the ‘political party’ register. It seems that these organisations are no longer at risk of losing their tax exemption status, and potential breaches of the law would be punished by a fine.

As I said, these changes are to be welcomed. The Israeli authorities and a number of Israeli NGOs may not have liked our reaction to the original bill, but, as we have seen, our actions have had effect.

Having said this, the aim of the present draft still raises concern. Firstly, it seems to be directed at intimidating the EU and its Member States. In the background note that we received from the NGO which I already mentioned (Israeli NGO Monitor), we read the following, and I quote: ‘The EU and the Member States channel tens of millions of euros annually to a narrow group of highly-politicised Israeli NGOs through non-transparent processes. The degree to which European States are using NGO funding to influence Israeli political and public debates has no parallel in relations among democracies. Therefore, greater transparency regarding foreign government funding is central to the Israeli democratic process and the public’s right to know.’

Needless to say, a number of those allegations are absolutely untrue but they are very revealing. They reveal how strong the distrust is between a number of Israeli opinion makers and the EU and we need to do something about it. They also reveal how embattled important segments of Israeli public opinion feel; that is also a matter of concern. Both elements make a peaceful solution in the Middle East even more difficult than it already is. My question to you Commissioner is: what do you intend to do about this to improve the situation?

 
  
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  Véronique De Keyser, author. (FR) Mr President, the Goldstone report had an unexpected outcome.

The intention was to establish the truth about possible war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and, in fact, it caused an outcry in Israel. Justice Goldstone was subjected to personal attacks and the NGOs that had the courage to give evidence became targets. Shortly after this media storm, a number of draft bills emerged intending to further control NGOs and weaken all opposition to government policy.

Among these was a draft bill on NGOs which initially sought to consider them as political organisations and therefore not exempt from taxation.

Secondly, a draft bill on criminalising the boycott of Israeli goods, even goods from the settlements, including boycotts called for by a government, an organisation or a citizen of foreign origin. To put it plainly, if a French person calls for a boycott of goods from the settlements on the Internet, he could be penalised, and if the Palestinian Authority does so, it will receive the same treatment.

Thirdly, a draft bill on universal jurisdiction which gives Israel competence to decide on cases of this kind.

Various other draft bills that restrict freedom of speech or of movement are in progress. It is not possible to list them but they are all on the same lines and they are worrying. They amount to a direct attack on freedom of speech which is an inalienable human right and a necessary corollary of democracy.

For the Knesset to have amended the law on NGOs to the point where it has become almost acceptable for the NGOs themselves is a good thing. It is to be hoped that the other draft bills will meet with the same fate, especially the law on boycotts, which will be submitted to the Knesset for first reading on 15 September.

I wish to draw the Commission’s attention to this point: if we can no longer say that goods imported illegally under the terms of our agreements may not be bought in Europe, it is as though we were prohibiting advice against the purchase of, for example, counterfeit goods or stolen watches on a market stall. Parliament will monitor this issue closely.

In this regard, I would ask Europe: what are we in Europe doing in this Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Where was our High Representative? Where are we in this process that is so important?

 
  
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  Marie-Christine Vergiat, author. (FR) Mr President, at the beginning of this year, the Israeli Government adopted a draft bill that directly calls into question the funding granted by the European Union to NGOs in Israel.

I myself cosigned this question and I am pleased that this allows us to assess the excellent work of the Israeli NGOs, which are fighting on a daily basis for peace, democracy and, more generally, for human rights in the territory of the State of Israel. These NGOs are all too often the forgotten ones in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although they are doing a remarkable job, as I have already said, and they suffer much harassment.

The Israeli Government has backtracked slightly under pressure, particularly from us, but without changing the direction of its policy. Indeed, the Israeli authorities are seeking to put in place a veritable legal arsenal in order to prevent any criticism of their policy, including from abroad.

I, too, am focusing on the provisions that seek to prohibit boycott activities and, worse still, one that calls into question the principle of universal jurisdiction that is enshrined in many international treaties of which Israel is a signatory. Unfortunately, however, we know that the Israeli Government sometimes takes a ‘variable geometry’ approach to international law. In fact, we know that these proposals represent the Israeli Government’s reactions to the Goldstone report.

Commissioner, the Union has established a privileged partnership with Israel which nothing seems able to call into question. It seems to us, however, in this House, that there are limits. We must bring about an end to the Israeli Government’s harassment of the NGOs that criticise its policy and unreservedly request that it withdraws these proposals that are unworthy of a state that claims to be a democracy.

Can you assure us that, even if this legislation is adopted, although I hope that does not happen, the European Union will nonetheless continue unconditionally to finance these NGOs in Israel? Can you tell us what the Commission intends to do to convince the government to withdraw these measures and to safeguard the right to freedom of association, which is a fundamental pillar of democracy? Can you assure us that liaison officers with responsibility for human rights will be appointed in Israel as part of the process of setting up the European External Action Service so that the NGOs have negotiators on the ground?

 
  
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  Štefan Füle, Member of the Commission. – Mr President, civil society organisations play a vital role in open and democratic societies. Israel has an unquestionable tradition of a free, open, and vibrant civil society playing a positive role in many sectors, including monitoring human rights, both in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as highlighting environmental and cultural issues.

The EU has been cooperating with Israeli non-governmental organisations for many years and has a keen interest in continuing this fruitful cooperation, in particular, since many Israeli NGOs have a reputation for professional excellence in their fields. This is why we followed with concern the debate in the Knesset on the bill on the ‘disclosure of funding from abroad’. We have made these concerns clearly known to the Israeli authorities on many occasions.

As spelled out in the Commission’s European Neighbourhood Policy Progress Report, the first version of the bill, last February, contained new requirements on the activities of civil society that – if adopted – would have substantially hampered NGO work in Israel.

A new and substantially revised version of the bill was discussed during the summer by members of the Knesset, the government and civil society representatives. In August, a new draft was adopted at first reading in the Knesset.

In the latest draft bill, provisions removing tax exemptions for NGOs and including an obligation to register in the political parties’ register have been shelved. These are certainly very welcome changes.

However, in our view, the reporting obligations imposed on NGOs would still become unnecessarily stringent, not least because the current administrative requirements for NGOs in Israel already ensure adequate transparency of public funding. Furthermore, these new transparency criteria would only cover public funding from abroad, while private foreign sources would not need to be disclosed – as has quite rightly been underscored. That approach would discriminate against those working with foreign public funding, including from the EU.

In the ENP Action Plan, Israel and the European Union have agreed to engage in a regular dialogue on civil society issues and to promote Israel-EU links between civil society. The latest EU-Israel working group on human rights met on 2 September, and also discussed in detail the issue of NGO funding.

The bill will go through further discussions and readings in the Knesset in the coming months. We will continue to follow developments closely.

 
  
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  Hans-Gert Pöttering, on behalf of the PPE Group.(DE) Mr President, Mr Füle, ladies and gentlemen, the proposed legislation on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Israel has given us all great cause for concern. We were worried that the ability of NGOs in Israel to act would be significantly restricted.

During a visit by a delegation of committee chairs from the European Parliament, which I took part in as chair of the Working Group on the Middle East, we expressed our concern to our colleagues in the Knesset in Jerusalem, in particular, during a very positive meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor. I would like to see clever, level-headed people such as Dan Meridor playing a much more prominent public role, rather than the Foreign Minister, for example, whose position we do not agree with at all.

As all the speakers have said, the draft includes some improvements. I very much welcome what Mr Füle has said, but there are still some questions which need answering. Whenever restrictions are imposed on the tasks and the sphere of influence of human rights organisations and other NGOs, we must make our voice heard. The legislation has not yet been adopted and a decision is expected during the session of the Knesset in October. We will continue to monitor the situation very carefully.

As a genuine friend of Israel, I would like to say that the Israeli Government and the Israeli Parliament must be treated in the same way as any other government or parliament. Israel rightly claims to be a democracy. Therefore, it must also accept criticism when we feel that it is appropriate to give it.

I would like to add that I do not understand why the Israeli embassy in Brussels issued a statement to the press yesterday saying that we are discussing a non-existent subject today and that the debate should not take place because of the peace process in the Middle East.

I would like to call on the Israeli Government and to make it very clear that we are opposed to all the statements made by the President of Iran concerning the security of Israel, that we are opposed to terrorism of whatever kind and that when Israelis are killed in Hebron, we will issue a strong condemnation. However, we must also say to Israel that settlement building must not restart after 26 September. Instead, Israel must lay the foundations for the continuation of the peace process. Israel has a great responsibility in this area and we hope very much that there will be a stable and lasting peace in which both Israel and the Palestinian state have secure borders. The dignity of both the Israelis and the Palestinians is important.

(Applause)

 
  
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  Richard Howitt, on behalf of the S&D Group. – Mr President, in the week when there is the resumption of direct peace talks and on the day which marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year – and I wish shana tova to all Jews in Europe and in the world – I deeply regret that the Israeli Knesset still intends to impose onerous and unacceptable reporting restrictions on all human rights organisations in receipt of foreign funds, including funds from the European Union.

We have heard from the NGOs affected, both in our Middle East Working Group and in Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee, that they undertake bona fide human rights work but that they are being intimidated and harassed by accusations of political bias.

Such restrictions on international aid for human rights NGOs exist in countries including Burma, Tunisia and Rwanda. They should not be introduced in a country like Israel, and they are contrary to Israel’s obligations to support freedom of association under the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

There are too few voices for peace and human rights on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East. Those who do speak out are often overwhelmed by others who seek the path of violence.

Pluralistic democratic societies operating in conditions of peace and stability cherish civil society, even when its message may sometimes be difficult. As George Orwell said, ‘freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

 
  
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  Chris Davies, on behalf of the ALDE Group. – Mr President, I refer to the letter from the Israeli Ambassador, Mr Curiel, to the chair of our Human Rights Subcommittee.

It was my intention to welcome, and indeed endorse, his declaration that we should be prepared to support the principle of transparency in the funding of organisations. We would expect that here, and why not in Israel too.

Then my eyes turned to one of the last paragraphs of his letter, where he expressed his resentment to any comparison being made between pluralistic Israeli civil society and some other countries. He uses these words: ‘Embarking on such a wrong path may lead us all to dwell on Europe’s own credentials past and present’. If that is not a reference to the Holocaust, I do not know what is. The implications are clear: you Europeans do not have the right to criticise Israel because of your past. You have blood on your hands.

I was not responsible for the actions of the Nazis. I was not born at the time, most of the rest of us here were not born then, and this European Union was established to try and ensure that evil of that kind never took place again. I resent the idea that we have to turn a blind eye to Israel’s appalling behaviour – in Gaza, the economic blockade, the occupation of Palestinian territory and infringements of human rights – all too often.

I resent the idea that we should be forced not to ask why a people which suffered so much in previous centuries should now inflict such suffering upon the Palestinian people today.

(Applause)

 
  
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  Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. (FR) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, some people are saying that today’s debate is no longer topical. However, while pressure groups have been attacking European funding for Israeli NGOs since 2005, the working conditions of civil society in Israel continue to deteriorate.

Since the publication of the Goldstone report, many representatives of organisations have been defamed, intimidated and arrested. Fourteen draft bills are currently under discussion. They all have the aim of restricting independence and freedom of association. I would remind you that Israeli defenders of human rights are no longer allowed to enter the occupied territories without a permit from the army.

Israeli democrats and pacifists, who have been able to benefit from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, are concerned, because even in an amended form, this draft bill specifically targets the financing of international organisations while private funding is not affected.

We will no longer accept that those people who have the courage to denounce the daily humiliations suffered by Palestinians, the expulsion of families, demolition of houses, land confiscation and water deprivation, should be reduced to silence.

 
  
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  Charles Tannock, on behalf of the ECR Group. – Mr President, like all sovereign states, Israel has an absolute right to supervise, monitor and regulate as it sees fit the activities of domestic and international NGOs which operate on its territory, particularly if they are of a political nature and might be supportive of terrorism or coming from states which support terrorism.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, characterised by a vigorous civil society in which all shades of non-violent opinion can be openly represented and discussed. NGOs operating in Israel have a freedom unparalleled anywhere else in the Middle East, which is generally a repressive environment for civil society. Russia has passed draconian legislation against NGOs, despite being a member of the Council of Europe, but Russia is big and has oil and gas, whereas Israel is small and resource-poor, which perhaps explains why Russia largely escapes scrutiny in this respect.

Today’s debate therefore appears suspiciously like another Israel-bashing exercise by the usual suspects, of the kind in which this Parliament indulges all too often – never mind that the draft law proposed to the Knesset has undergone considerable alteration and improvement. With direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians having just resumed, we in the European Parliament risk condemning ourselves to irrelevance with unhelpful debates like this one.

 
  
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  Kyriacos Triantaphyllides, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group.(EL) Mr President, the proposed bill is in keeping with the broader strategy to de-legitimise the fight to defend human rights in Israel, by muzzling dissenting voices within the country and supplementing similar acts of intimidation, such as arrests at demonstrations against the war in Gaza, in the past.

Last May, the Directorate General of External Relations found that the conditions of NGOs in Israel had deteriorated. However, since then, not once has the European Union publicly condemned the decisions on the proposed legislation, nor has it called publicly on Israel to respect the freedom of expression of its citizens. The European Union cannot declare allegiance to the rule of law and recognise the dangers and yet turn a blind eye when human rights are not respected. It must take a public stand by calling on Israel to withdraw the bill.

At a time when NGOs being funded by the European Union are under attack and their financial support from the Community is being undermined, the European Union cannot continue to strengthen relations with Israel. It must set conditions for continuing trade and suspend the association agreement until such time as the state of Israel respects freedom of expression and partnership. Moreover, Israel must comply with Article 2 of the association agreement on human rights and withdraw the proposed bill.

 
  
  

IN THE CHAIR: Stavros LAMBRINIDIS
Vice-President

 
  
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  Bastiaan Belder, on behalf of the EFD Group. (NL) Mr President, this is a curious debate, in more ways than one. To sum it up in one sentence: on the basis of outdated parliamentary questions, we are debating a current Israeli legal procedure which seeks to ensure that Israeli NGOs are as financially transparent as possible. Please bear in mind that the draft bill that is being challenged carefully weighs up the right of organisations to operate freely in a democracy against the right of Israeli citizens to know who is funding the activities of the NGOs in question. For many years, transparency has been a European political motto. Is there any reason why this so frequently professed principle should not be properly applied to a situation where the European Union and its Member States grant substantial amounts of money to Israeli NGOs? If this House is opposed to that, then it is, in my opinion, putting up a poor show, both here in Parliament and in the Jewish state. With such a politically suspect attitude, you will certainly alienate the right-minded citizens of Europe, and that means the taxpayers.

 
  
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  Diane Dodds (NI). – Mr President, I am deeply disturbed by the content and tone of some of the contributions to this debate today. As direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority make a faltering start, I would urge this House to be cautious in its remarks, at a time of great sensitivity in the Middle East.

From the experience of my own constituency of Northern Ireland, I can testify to the fragility of such talks. Outside interference is often counter-productive and destabilising to progress. This is made all the more acute by the indiscriminate attack last week which killed four Israeli citizens. I am sure Members will join in condemning that attack, and indeed in commending Israel for its commitment to the talks.

Turning to the legislation in question, we should acknowledge that the Israeli Government has worked with its Parliament to address concerns. The bill that will progress through the Knesset has seen significant changes. Those changes exemplify Israeli democracy in action and responsiveness to reasonable and measured criticism. The remaining measures are focused on applying the principles of openness, accountability and transparency to the NGO sector. NGOs across the world regularly advocate these as key principles for healthy public life in a democratic society.

Furthermore, the requirement that foreign government support should be acknowledged in public advertising campaigns and websites is comparable with the EU funding requirement to acknowledge and promote the receipt of EU funding. I would suggest that this makes the opposition by NGOs – and by some within this Parliament – to such proposals both illogical and hypocritical.

That debate represents interference in the internal affairs of a state outside the European Union and on a matter which is already being addressed. Many in Israel will conclude that the motivation for this is born of anti-Israeli sentiment when, at a time of peace negotiations, we should be a source of encouragement for those negotiators.

 
  
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  Chris Davies (ALDE). – Mr President, I thank Mrs Dodds. Would the honourable Member accept that she is relatively new to this House. Some of us who have been here a remarkably long time already, it seems, have actually been through a number of Israeli-Palestinian direct peace negotiations and have found that keeping quiet does not necessarily contribute to the process whatsoever?

 
  
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  Diane Dodds (NI). – Mr President, of course I will accept that I am relatively new to this House, but I would also expect the honourable Member to recognise that I am not new to situations of conflict or to dealing with a situation of terrorism, within my own constituency of Northern Ireland.

I actually have personal experience of such terrorism and, having taken part in the negotiations which led to a more peaceful democratic future for my people in Northern Ireland, my experience is that outside interference, and particularly very skewed outside interference, is both wrong and unhelpful.

(The speaker agreed to take a blue-card question under Rule 149(8))

 
  
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  Róża Gräfin von Thun und Hohenstein (PPE). – Mr President, listening to this debate I would like to share with you that for many years, I was Director-General of a Polish NGO which promoted Poland’s joining the European Union, supported a ‘yes’ in the referendum and ran many programmes on political education, democracy, etc.

We also had our sponsors in Poland and abroad. They were private persons, businesses and political foundations, as well as various European Union programmes, and, of course, we were obliged to declare the sources of our money and the sums received. This was also true for all money we got from the EU budget. It would never occur to me to see this as any kind of discrimination or as hampering us in any way.

When it comes to this discussion, I am sorry to say we are losing ourselves in debates that are based on outdated documents. We are losing the big picture, and that is what we really need. This is about standards, this is about democracy, the democracy based on active citizens often organised in lively, dynamic NGOs.

Transparency is a standard of democracy, and a bill or any legal document that requires transparency for any private or public funding should be praised, and not condemned, in this Chamber.

Maybe rather, we should also encourage reporting on private donors. Why should transparency hamper activity, weaken the situation of NGOs, discriminate? Why do we need transparency? These are the questions we should ask ourselves for any organisation in the world that we support.

Israel is a democratic state. There was a lively discussion in the Knesset about this draft bill, which resulted in last August’s bill. So, thanking Commissioner Füle for all the information that he has provided us, I can only wish him, the Commission and all of us, further continuing, developing, good cooperation between the European Union and Israel.

 
  
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  Proinsias De Rossa (S&D). – Mr President, could I first of all respond to the notion that outside interference is in some way damaging to peace processes. If one were to follow that logic, the European Union, and indeed the world at large, should turn its back on every single conflict around the world and pretend it is none of its business. That is a nonsense argument, Mrs Dodds, and I urge you to review your view on it.

It is entirely legitimate for this Parliament to examine potential threats to freedom of speech and freedom of association in any state with which we have a trading relationship. Our treaties oblige us to engage in trade on an ethical basis. Israel, which has a very close trade relationship with the EU, cannot be exempt from such scrutiny.

I welcome the changes that have been made so far to the NGO funding bill in the Knesset law committee, owing no doubt to the international pressure that has been mounted, but it is still only at the first stage. It still has to go back to committee and go through a second and a third stage. We do not yet know what the final version will be like.

However, the bill as it remains is a draconian and unbalanced bill which will discriminate in favour of private donations from foreign entities, which will not have to disclose the source or purpose of such donations. Either this is a bill about transparency, or it is not. If it is, then it has to be complete transparency.

I am sceptical regarding the final outcome and believe that Parliament, the Commission and the Council must maintain their vigilance and make it clear that legislation, if passed, which goes beyond balanced transparency requirements will have a bearing on our relationship.

I would like to comment briefly on the proposed boycott legislation, which will attempt to criminalise anybody who supports a boycott of the sale, in Europe, of goods produced illegally in the illegal settlements. I would regard that as a breach of the right to political action.

(The speaker agreed to take a blue card question under Rule 149(8))

 
  
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  Bastiaan Belder (EFD). (NL) Mr President, just a moment ago, my fellow Member, Mr De Rossa, said that a debate on the draft bill which is being challenged had already taken place and that amendments had been made to the bill. Might I point out that that debate is still ongoing? As chair of the Israel Delegation, I was informed of that earlier this week, but what has struck me – and that is where I have a question for you – is that you say that those amendments were the result of outside pressure. Are you suggesting that our colleagues in the Knesset are not entitled to change their minds, as the chair of the committee concerned did when he proposed that private donors also come under the transparency act? Surely, that is the opposite of external pressure? In other words, do you think that external pressure is the only thing that can make members of the Israeli Knesset change their minds? I find that belief quite biased.

 
  
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  Proinsias De Rossa (S&D). – Mr President, I would not make the nonsensical statement that only outside pressure can encourage parliamentarians to change their minds, but it is obvious that international pressure does help to change minds. I know that to be the case in Ireland. In the peace process in Ireland, it helped to change the minds of the IRA and of Sinn Féin. Obviously, in Ireland, we also exerted internal pressure on them, but international pressure too is, of course, an important part of the democratic process. We are, after all, one world.

 
  
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  Frédérique Ries (ALDE). (FR) Mr President, I am, at times, astonished by the tenor of some of our debates here in Parliament. That is the case today.

What are we talking about? What is on the agenda? Not the Goldstone report. Not the settlements. Not operation ‘Cast Lead’. No, the title of the debate is ‘Draft bill on Israeli NGOs’, a bill which is still under debate in the Knesset, which has not yet voted on it.

Our Parliament therefore demanded, back in April, to debate this issue immediately after it had been raised by the Israeli Government, and even before the Israeli Members of Parliament were able to debate it. It is all the more patronising – I am sorry but that is the only word for it – given that this bill, and this has already been mentioned, has now been substantially amended. Indeed, it is an insult to the work of our colleagues in the Knesset to think that it was our oral question here, in this Parliament, that transformed matters. It shows a total lack of understanding of the Israeli mentality and of the vitality of the democratic process, of the NGOs, and of the Israeli Members of Parliament.

Mr Pöttering mentioned a visit which he has just made to Israel. I too have returned from Israel; I returned on Saturday. I met elected representatives from Kadima, from Labour, and some from Likud, and I can assure you that they have been working with the NGOs for months on this issue. They have not waited for us. So, I do not understand: every democracy in the world – and this has also been said – is moving towards more transparency, ethical conduct and accountability in public office. This is true of governments, political parties – obviously – public administration, the Member States too, the Commission and our Parliament; they all follow the same process of transparency, a process which is all the more necessary and understandable in the case of a region as troubled as this one is by the tragic conflict taking place there.

(The speaker agreed to take a blue card question under Rule 149(8))

 
  
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  Nicole Kiil-Nielsen (Verts/ALE).(FR) Mr President, I would simply like to ask Mrs Ries, since she does not think there has been any impact on the Knesset or on the Israeli authorities, to explain the communiqué from the Israeli Embassy which we were just talking about and to explain certain e-mails we have received over the past few days.

 
  
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  Frédérique Ries (ALDE).(FR) Mr President, I did not say that they had not been influenced, any more than Mr De Rossa, no doubt, thought that it was our work and our work alone that had changed the course of events in that country. All I am saying, having discussed the matter only last week with the Members of Parliament of that country, is that they had started the process of debating and amending this bill well before and independently of our intervention. I think that some of the remarks that we are making here are particularly patronising, and I would be very reluctant to speak for the Ambassador who sent that communiqué yesterday. I do not think it is my place to do so.

 
  
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  Heidi Hautala (Verts/ALE). – Mr President, personally, I have dedicated a lot of my political career to promoting transparency in political decision making, but I can also rather easily see that this draft bill is very selective in its attempts to create transparency.

In the Subcommittee on Human Rights, in June, we actually had NGOs from Israel and we asked them about this law. They were concerned. We also heard other views and I personally had correspondence with the Israeli Ambassador to the European Union about this bill.

So I would say that the work that we have done in Parliament on this oral question in the subcommittee has helped create the conditions for a sound public debate, which will have an impact.

But, above all, what impressed me in that hearing in the subcommittee was the good spirit in which the Israeli and Palestinian NGOs work with one another. I think we should find new ways to support their cooperation, because that could play a very important role in the peace process.

 
  
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  Fiorello Provera (EFD).(IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, this debate confirms many prejudices about Israel, which continue to influence the European Union’s Middle East policy.

Today we are discussing a bill in the Knesset that actually no longer exists, since it has been substantially changed. The new bill calls for total transparency regarding funding from abroad for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Israel, some of which, it has to be said, are more involved in politics than in humanitarian aid.

This call for transparency does not appear to me to restrict people’s freedom of association, but today we are discussing it as if it did. We should not be surprised, then, at the diffidence of Israeli politicians towards the European Union, and that may account for why we are not sitting at the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table, even though we are the main donor in the region.

We should instead be discussing how to improve the transparency and traceability of our procedures for financing the NGOs and United Nations agencies operating in the region. By doing so, we would remove any doubts about our political positions.

I will conclude with a proposal: instead of discussing this bill, why do we not organise a debate on the growing anti-Semitism in Europe, especially after the statements by Mr De Gucht?

 
  
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  Franz Obermayr (NI).(DE) Mr President, in February 2010, the Knesset passed an act which abolished the tax exemption enjoyed by all organisations working with foreign groups. This was followed in April by a bill which aims to ban all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in legal proceedings abroad against Israeli officials. It is obvious that critics of the system soon become public enemy number one in Israel. The New Israel Front is being publicly accused of having destroyed the foundations of the Israeli state, simply because it helped to produce the Goldstone report.

The EU must take up a clear position with regard to this growing intolerance. In Israel and in the Palestinian state, NGOs are an important part of the citizens’ involvement in politics and, therefore, deserve protection as part of a democratic system. We expect any country which, like Israel, wants to enter into a closer association with the EU, to play by European rules and respect European standards.

 
  
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  Ria Oomen-Ruijten (PPE). (NL) Mr President, I have learnt, to my astonishment, that Israel has been attempting to keep this issue off the European agenda. I always go by the principle that, if you believe in your own legislation, you should not be afraid of debate and that debate can create a climate in which NGOs, which are the issue at stake here, can go about their work in Israel without obstruction. Therefore, a debate in this House can only help dispel concerns.

Mr President, I am pleased to note that a great deal has happened in the period between Mrs Heidi Hautala submitting an oral question on 27 April and today’s debate. I understand from the ambassador’s letter and the translation of the draft bill that significant amendments have been made. I am pleased that is the case. However, what does worry me is how the new legislation will be enforced and the question of whether or not it will be enforced selectively. In my opinion, the transparency of NGOs is part and parcel of every democracy, which is why it is important that Israel, too, ensures that there are no unreasonable obstructions to their activities. I am putting this question to Mr Füle: do we have guarantees that all NGOs in Israel will be treated equally and that this new legislation will not lead to restrictive measures for NGOs which are, wholly or partly, funded from abroad?

My third point concerns transparency, which is being used as an argument – and that is all well and good – but what I do not understand is why private donations do not fall within this legislation. The way I see it, that is a significant omission.

Mr President, in all other respects, I agree with the comment made by my colleague, Mr Pöttering, about the settlement policy.

 
  
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  Monika Flašíková Beňová (S&D). (SK) I must say that I am surprised by the tone of this discussion. Today we were supposed to discuss our proposals and our views on a bill which is still being amended, and where we might suggest to our colleagues from the Israeli Knesset, who are just as much elected as we are in the European Parliament, what our good advice might be or our valuable experience in the passing of this type of law.

Unfortunately, this discussion has degenerated into a kind of fight by one section of this Parliament against Israel in general. We should remember that Israel finds itself in a very difficult position and a difficult situation, that it is the only democratic state in that region, and that it faces attacks from almost all of its neighbours. That is the first thing, and just to clear up any doubts, in the previous election period, I was the deputy chair of the delegation of the European Parliament for relations with Israel. I therefore have some experience, and very good experience too, I must say, with colleagues from the Israeli Knesset, and I never had the feeling that when we visited Israel and we had questions that were perhaps not agreeable to them, that they did not want to answer those questions. Finally, many of you who are also sitting here in this debate worked together with me in that Delegation, or are even doing so today. So let us move on, let us come forward with some good proposals and, in my opinion, our colleagues from the Knesset will embrace those proposals and will be happy to adopt the act in that way.

 
  
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  Margrete Auken (Verts/ALE). (DA) Mr President, the previous speech brought to mind an email that we received a while ago from an American-Israeli friendship organisation saying that it was now high time that people started to treat Israel as a democracy. It reminded me of the well-known story about Gandhi, who was once asked what he thought of Western civilisation. He answered: ‘That would be a good idea’. I think we should treat Israel as if it is a democracy and make the demands that are necessary for it to be a good democracy.

The point has been made clearly here today that we cannot simply be satisfied with transparency with regard to public funding when we do not have it with regard to private funding, even if everyone knows where the large private funds come from. We cannot take Israel seriously if they cite the persecution of Jews and the holocaust as an excuse for treating others badly. This trivialising of the suffering of Jews is, in my view, perhaps one of the most disgraceful things we have heard in this debate. Those violent acts that were committed must not be used as an absurd excuse for not complying with the important ground rules of democracy. We must make appropriate demands of Israel and not treat it like a camp for delicate children or make allowances for it as if it is in some way handicapped.

 
  
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  Zuzana Roithová (PPE). (CS) This question to the Commission from the Members on the left is, so to speak, off message and therefore nonsensical. It is not only that the bill the Knesset will vote on next month currently has a different form. I firmly believe that a democratically functioning country such as Israel has the right to pass laws, as long as they are not contrary to international law, and that was not the case even with the original government proposal. I would like to remind you that in my country, it is standard practice for voluntary organisations to name their sources, including sources from foreign and private sponsors.

The European Union cofinances non-governmental organisations all over the world and we are not always sure what the support is eventually used for. On the other hand, we should therefore applaud the fact that the Israeli Government and parliament are trying to achieve greater transparency in relation to the financial sums flowing into political movements and politically active non-governmental organisations from abroad. We should rather be concerned that some of them use resources from terrorist organisations abroad to undermine peace efforts and threaten the security of Israeli citizens.

I am sorry that some Members on the left are bothered about the idea of good relations between Israel and the European Union. Our priority, however, is peaceful coexistence between Israel and the future Palestinian state, and not the spreading of prejudice and gossip. However, what bothers me is the fact that the Commission has not been invited to the intergovernmental negotiations, and my question for the Commission is: Are you capable of changing this situation?

 
  
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  Pier Antonio Panzeri (S&D).(IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, someone might surely object to the reasons that have led the European Parliament to debate and pass judgment on a legislative act that a democratically elected parliament like the Israeli Knesset is adopting.

Such objections are understandable, but there are at least two basic reasons why this debate is necessary. The first is the unique nature of the situation in the Middle East, resulting from a conflict that has lasted too long and does not only involve Israel. The second is the important role played by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in that area, both on the humanitarian aid side and in connection with development cooperation policies. Besides, the Israeli authorities themselves should assess that role carefully, because without the work done by all the NGOs, the tensions in the region would be greater and much more serious.

For that reason, it will be perfectly natural to suggest to the Knesset, when it intends to legislate on this subject, that it should set out two clear objectives in addition to the changes already made: to ensure transparency for funding, applying without bias to everyone, including organisations like the settlers’ NGOs, for example; and to make it possible in practical terms for all the NGOs to work, since their work is important, not least for the future of the peace negotiations themselves.

 
  
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  Sari Essayah (PPE). – Mr President, the principle of the draft bill is that foreign government funding for NGOs should be fully transparent.

Do we have a problem with transparency? Hopefully not. In most EU Member States, we have legislation about NGO funding and its transparency as well as the funding of political parties. In Finland, for example, we have just passed a law about the funding of political parties by means of which we wanted to prohibit all kinds of foreign funding except from European sister-parties. We do not want foreign forces to be able to buy influence in Finnish political life.

All us politicians would be very astonished if some fellow European Member State government started funding our national NGOs for political campaigns. At least we would like to know the source of the money and the possible motives.

The Quartet representative, Tony Blair, pointed out the double standards so commonly applied in European attitudes towards Israel in his speech last week in Herzliya. He said, do not apply rules to the government of Israel that you would never dream of applying to your own country.

So the European Parliament should support Israeli legislators in ensuring transparency rather than attacking with false accusations, and interfering in, a democratic legislative process.

Are we, as Europeans, fully aware that EU-funded NGOs’ projects do not always promote peace, but rather work against mutual understanding and create more distrust and hostility between Israelis and Palestinians?

So this new legislation is important for European taxpayers as well, so that we will know how our money is spent in that area.

 
  
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  Marek Siwiec (S&D).(PL) Mr President, they say that before signing an agreement with a bank, you should read the small print at the bottom. In the question we are discussing, today, it is important to read what is said at the very end of the question. The authors ask how this matter will affect the future of the relationship between the EU and Israel. My answer is that it will have a very favourable influence, because we are saying, today, that we have a partner in the Middle East which is a democracy, and that there are people there who want to be careful with European money and who want to take care over how that money is spent. It is the only country in the region where they are so careful about European money. Not far from that country, millions of euro are disappearing without trace, and we do not know how this money is being spent. If, today, we can feel a moment of satisfaction, it is because we are promoting democracy in Israel. We are saying that it is a democratic country, and that it is building a democracy in accordance with our standards. The European Parliament has achieved something exceptional during this debate. In good faith, we have defended non-governmental organisations in Israel – organisations which do not feel they are in any danger – and we are protecting them from legislation which has not yet come into force. I would like this to be seen as a good message from this debate.

 
  
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  Zoran Thaler (S&D). (SL) The trend of restrictive legislation in Israel points to an ever widening gulf between Israel’s ideal of being the only real democracy in the Middle East, as we proudly like to point out, and the actual situation which, despite all this undeniable democracy, also includes suppression of the legitimate rights of the neighbouring Palestinian population to self-determination and to their own country and freedom.

Since this is the policy of the Israeli Government, anyone who opposes it, whether an individual or a non-governmental organisation, will sooner or later become an enemy of its dictatorship. It is difficult, impossible, to be a democracy behind high walls while, at the same time, oppressing others. That is an illusion.

This is why Israel will have to make a choice between remaining a democracy and developing democratically – in the sense of recognising and allowing its neighbouring population, the Palestinians, to exercise their democratic rights – and maintaining its current policy of undermining those rights and occasionally sliding into undemocratic behaviour, lack of openness, narrow-mindedness, xenophobia and repression of its civil society. Unfortunately, the inevitable price of such a policy towards the Palestinians will be the destruction of Israel’s own democracy.

 
  
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  Ulrike Lunacek (Verts/ALE). – Mr President, I would like to thank Commissioner Füle for the words he very clearly expressed about Israeli civil society – which is very vibrant, as we all know – but also for his criticism of the law that has been changed.

One of the points that I found very positive in the process that has been going on is that some of the very bad parts of the law actually have been changed. However there are still some issues that might need closer review by the Members of the Knesset. You mentioned one of them – the fact that private funding is not part of the law where transparency is required. We know very well – in our countries as well – that there is private funding and there should be transparency. Somebody else said that political parties should be open about which private individuals, companies, etc. are funding them. In my own country, there are problems about that.

That is an issue that, in all friendship with Israel and the Knesset, I hope will still be changed so that civil society in Israel will be as transparent as most of it is anyway, but will also be active in the future for peace in the region.

 
  
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  Ivo Vajgl (ALDE). (SL) There is no doubt that Israel is a democratic state, but no democratic state is immune to undemocratic actions or pressures.

In this case, which concerns pressure exerted on non-governmental organisations in Israel, we are dealing with undemocratic actions, and indeed, we were warned of them taking place when we visited Israel as a delegation. Furthermore, now that I have spoken to a number of contacts in Brussels, I firmly believe that they did take place.

Here, today, we are debating one particular law. However, there are actually three laws which, each in their own way, essentially place NGOs and anyone working with them in an equivocal position. That is not good for any democracy. Since our debate will also have an impact on the peace negotiations, I have to say that so far, the greatest harm caused to the peace talks has been Israel’s Foreign Minister Lieberman’s statement that Israel would continue building settlements in the occupied territories.

 
  
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  Alexandra Thein (ALDE).(DE) Mr President, I would firstly like to thank Israel for taking seriously the many concerns about its proposed legislation and for at least watering down the provisions slightly.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have, for many years, been required to disclose their sources of funding in a completely transparent way and even to publish this information on their websites. The planned legislation, even in its watered-down form, is ultimately aimed only at specific NGOs: firstly at human rights organisations and secondly at those which receive public funding. This includes, for example, public money from the United Nations or the European Union. In contrast, far-right groups or non-governmental organisations which are privately funded and which, for example, support the building of illegal settlements, are not subject to any legal restrictions and do not have to make their funding sources public. The problem with the proposed legislation lies in this unequal treatment.

 
  
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  Štefan Füle, Member of the Commission. – Mr President, the debate today has shown once again the great importance that we all attach in the European Union to civil society. A free and active civil society underpins the development of a healthy democracy.

I have taken note of the many remarks you have made today and will convey them to our Israeli partners. I will also find a way to inform the High Representative and Vice-President on certain aspects of our debates, as she is our representative in the Quartet and is effectively ensuring that the European Union continues to play a very important role in the Middle East peace process.

Before I conclude, let me make two more very important points. The first is that we will continue to provide funding to NGOs for eligible projects which respond to our objectives. Secondly, we will continue dialogue with the Israeli authorities within the framework of existing political arrangements. Dialogue must remain open with this very important partner at all levels and through all channels.

Let me assure you, in conclusion, that the Commission will continue to follow this issue and will continue to advocate to our Israeli partners the need to promote and further facilitate, rather than restrict, the work of an active NGO sector.

 
  
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  President. – The debate is closed.

Written statements (Rule 149)

 
  
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  Olga Sehnalová (S&D), in writing. (CS) Voluntary organisations are a legitimate and essential component of civil society in a normal democratic country. However, it is equally legitimate to demand transparency in respect of their finances, both in terms of public and private sources. The question which needs to be addressed is therefore the level and specific legislation for securing this transparency. It would therefore be good to approach this question dispassionately, without prejudice, and with some confidence in the work of our democratically elected colleagues in the Israeli Knesset.

 
Last updated: 27 April 2011Legal notice