EU accused of meddling in Israeli democracy

30.06.10 @ 10:45

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - An archly conservative group with strong links to the Israeli government has attacked the human rights community in the Jewish state, saying that it is being bankrolled by the EU in a secretive attempt to undermine democracy.

  • Israeli flags in east Jerusalem (Photo: laika slips the lead)

Israeli diplomats are touting in Brussels the "investigative" work of NGO Monitor, a body which claims that a clutch of officials in the heart of the EU is plotting to "delegitimise" Israel by funding local human rights organisations.

Professor Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor president, was in Brussels last week speak MEPs and Israel's EU mission promoted his work among journalists.

The EU gives "public funds to a small group of opposition groups in an effort to manipulate the political process," he told eurodeputies.

"In violation of the principle that democracies do not attempt to manipulate or interfere with the internal political processes in other democracies, anonymous European officials in charge of NGO allocations seek to exploit a minority group of Israelis to impose EU-favoured policies on the wider Israeli public."

"I don't see it as a conspiracy," he later told reporters. "But with the EU lack of transparency in general, it is very hard to sort out."

He compared the sums, amounting to 68.8 million shekels (€15 million) since 2006 for Israeli civil society groups including B'Tselem, Peace Now, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Mossawa and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, whom he terms "radical fringe" NGOs, to the €15 million annually Israel spends internationally on its public diplomacy efforts.

Mr Steinberg also named Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam as part of what he calls "third-generation warfare" against Israel.

First came attacks from nation-states, he says; second came violence from non-state actors such as the PLO and the Intifada uprisings; and now the new form of war that is being mounted against the Jewish state comes in the form of human rights discourse that aims to "delegitimise" its right to exist.

"Across the board, these organisations cast Israel as having a poor record on human rights. They have a structural bias against Israel and they are very active in the demonisation and delegitimisation campaign of Israel," he said.

He is especially critical of B'Tselem, saying they play fast and loose with death rates and casualty counts in particular. "They are primarily an anti-occupation organisation. They should campaign for Israeli human rights as much as they do for Palestinians," he said.

He highlighted a November 2008 conference in Cairo that was funded by Oxfam and the EU entitled "Impunity and Prosecution of Israeli War Criminals," saying plans were hatched at the event for two Belgian lawyers to later target Israeli officials with legal claims in Belgium on war crimes.

"Why is the EU giving money to private Israeli organisations?" he said. My speculation is that it's a group of EU bureaucrats with personal ideological interests. And with the EU and these groups clinging to secrecy so stubbornly, it suggests that there's something going on under the surface."

Sarit Michaeli, of B'Tselem, dismissed the accusations, saying that NGO Monitor attacks all civil society groups in Israel no matter how moderate, as soon as they criticise the current government.

"Everyone, all human rights NGOs are instantly delegitimisers and demonisers of Israel. There are no shades of grey [for NGO Monitor]," she told EUobserver.

She added that Mr Steinberg gives the impression of being an objective academic studying NGOs in the region, but is in fact a partisan of the current administration: "He maintains he is independent of the Israeli government, but he has been a consultant to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he has represented Israel within the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe programmes. This is not in any way someone who is independent of the Israeli government."

She said that NGO Monitor fits in with the Israeli government's attempt to silence internal critics, such as NGO Breaking the Silence, an organisation of former Israeli soldiers who speak out about human rights abuses perpetrated in the occupied territories. In 2009, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs had meetings with the Spanish, Dutch and British governments in an attempt to stop them funding the group.

"It is tantamount to the government campaigning to discredit Israeli civil society and human rights NGOs," Ms Michaeli said.

"What [Steinberg] is actually doing in discrediting human rights groups in Israel, he is assisting in the creation of a system of repression of the crushing of internal dissent and actually injuring Israeli democracy - the very fragile democracy we have here"

Mr Steinberg's own organisation receives most of its funding from private American Jewish foundations.

The Israeli mission in Brussels for its part insists that NGO Monitor is not sponsored by the foreign ministry. "We would be happy to help out with arrangements for B'Tselem if they had approached us about coming to Brussels," an Israeli diplomat said.

Update: The Israeli mission has since clarified that such diplomatic support for B'Tselem would only be provided "depending on the topic".

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