Time to talk to the EU about NGO funding

Photo: timesofisrael.com

 

The disagreement between EU Vice President Federica Mogherini and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan over EU funding for Israel and Palestinian political NGOs has been a long time coming, and is likely to intensify with more charges and counter-charges. An EU program involving tens of millions of euros annually, which has continued for 20 years and involves core issues of peace, war, human rights and democracy is bound to create friction and controversy.

The angry exchange was launched with a 40-page heavily illustrated report published by Erdan’s office on extensive European Union funding for NGOs “with ties to terror and boycotts against Israel,” according to the title. Mogherini responded on July 5, asserting the allegations were “vague and unsubstantiated,” and that “of the 13 organizations listed… six do not receive EU funding of activities in Palestine, and none receives EU funds for BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] activity.”

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As with most such disputes, there is some truth on both sides, in addition to spin, definitional distinctions and mistakes. The Israeli report lists 13 NGO projects linked to delegitimization that are directly funded by the EU, and four more recipients which receive substantial EU money indirectly through funds originally provided to aid and church groups and from there, channeled to the anti-Israel frameworks. Some of the claims in the Erdan report are unverified, based on outdated information, and confuse similar-sounding NGOs, while Mogherini’s allegation regarding the six is unclear and may itself be incorrect.

At the same time, Mogherini avoided the core issue, based on the EU’s own documents, that extensive funds go to groups deeply involved in delegitimization and incitement, including BDS. Repeating a standard EU response to years of NGO Monitor reports covering the same ground, she argues, “Simply because an organization or individual is related to the BDS movement [targeting Israel] does not mean that this entity is involved in incitement to commit illegal acts, nor that it renders itself ineligible for EU funding.”

In other words, here, and in contrast to the blanket denial in other parts of the letter, she acknowledges that the EU knowingly provides budgets to groups that promote demonization. She then describes BDS and other forms of anti-Israel propaganda as “protected speech” that while not funded by the EU, does not disqualify an organization from support. In this version, EU grants to various groups that are very active in BDS are somehow channeled away from these activities.

BUT NO EVIDENCE is presented to support Mogherini’s claim, even though at the beginning of her letter she demanded evidence from Erdan. In fact, the opposite is more likely. In the example of PARC – an agricultural NGO and leading BDS campaigner, including against the Israeli water-saving innovator Mekorot – the EU provided €1.5 million in 2016. The claim that no EU funds went to pay PARC employees involved in BDS, provide rent for offices or computers and other infrastructure where BDS letters are written and graphics are designed, is hard to take seriously.

Similarly, Norwegian People’s Aid, an NGO superpower to which the EU gave €1.76 million in 2016, led the campaign calling on pension funds to withdraw investments from firms such as Motorola, HP and G4S due to “violation of international norms” related to sales over the 1949 armistice lines. If this is not BDS, the term has no meaning.

Another section of the Israeli report alleges that “millions given by EU institutions” go to “NGOs with ties to terror,” specifically groups involving members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is outlawed in Europe. Mogherini angrily rejected “any suggestion of EU involvement in supporting terror or terrorism,” adding, “vague and unsubstantiated accusations serve only to contribute to disinformation campaigns.”

But the Israeli claim is neither vague nor unsubstantiated, as extensive evidence of these close links is readily available from the organizations themselves, such as PCHR and Al-Haq. Perhaps the EU considers these links to be insignificant or outdated. (Some of the officials, such as Al-Haq’s Shawan Jabarin, were convicted by Israeli courts many years ago for involvement in PFLP activities.)
But if European officials make this claim, Israelis will push back with additional details, and the debate will intensify.

The Israeli document and the EU response over NGO funding reflects the importance of this issue. The EU has no NGO funding program of comparable scale elsewhere in the world, and this process by which groups (usually the same ones every year) are funded is protected by the type of official secrecy usually associated with nuclear weapons and other strategic projects.
The millions of euros for Israeli and Palestinian political NGOs are channeled through at least five EU frameworks, making information and tracking very difficult, even for members of the European Parliament. Freedom of information requests for documents associated with the decisions on allocating these grants are routinely denied. If the EU frameworks conduct due diligence on the NGOs before and during the funding process, evidence of this is carefully hidden.

At the end of her response, Mogherini invited Erdan to Brussels to discuss and debate the NGO funding issue, and Erdan accepted the challenge. If nothing else, these events have created a high-level and long overdue dialogue on one of the most divisive issues on the EU-Israel agenda. And the importance of dialogue is at least one area in which Israelis and Europeans agree.

The writer is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Institute for NGO Research in Jerusalem.

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