FOR YEARS repressive governments in the Middle East have sought to curb scrutiny of their human rights records and prevent the development of organized opposition by banning civil society groups from receiving funding from foreign governments. As the Arab Spring spreads across the region, some of those controls are easing. So it is shocking to see Israel’s democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics.
A ministerial committee of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government voted last week to support two pieces of legislation that would have the effect of cutting funding to non-governmental groups deemed “political.” One, backed by Mr. Netanyahu, would limit contributions by foreign governments to about $5,000; the other would impose a tax of 45 percent on contributions.
The measures would have a devastating effect on more than a dozen Israeli groups that depend heavily on funding from European governments. These include some of Israel’s best-known organizations, among them Peace Now, which receives a third of its funding from abroad, and the human rights group B’Tselem, which gets half its money from foreign donors.
The groups have been targeted by right-wing politicians because many advocate for Palestinian rights and some have collaborated with international investigations of Israel. Critics say that European governments spend tens of millions annually to support them — far more than they give to civil-society groups in the Arab world.
There is, however, nothing nefarious about public organizations in a democratic country receiving support from other democracies. The NGO funders are not enemies of Israel, and the groups themselves are not trying to subvert the state — only to correct what they see as its flaws. In the case of the illegal settlement construction often reported by Peace Now, or the human rights abuses by the Israeli army chronicled by B’Tselem, the government would be better off responding to rather than suppressing the criticism.
Fortunately, the legislation is provoking strong opposition from the parliament and Mr. Netanyahu’s own cabinet. Legal advisers are warning that it is unconstitutional, and the prime minister himself has said that the legislation should be amended. He would be wise to kill it altogether. Those who, like Mr. Netanyahu, worry about the “delegitimization” of Israel will only advance that cause if they are seen to erode the country’s democratic foundations.