July 18, 2016 - Deterring human rights advocacy in Israel; terror in Nice; coup in Turkey


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what’s wrong with the Knesset bill passed July 11th, that stigmatizes human rights NGOs (non-governmental organizations, or non-profits) in Israel by obliging them to constantly and blatantly publicize funding they receive from foreign governments; truck attack in Nice on Bastille Day, July 14; and what was relevant about the failed military coup in Turkey.

Q. On July 11, the Knesset passed a bill that stigmatizes human rights NGOs (non-governmental organizations, or non-profits) in Israel by obliging them to constantly and blatantly publicize funding they receive from foreign governments. What’s wrong with this measure?

A. Ostensibly, it is legitimate for any country to want to know what activities other countries are financing on its soil. Nor does the new law ban these activities; it “merely” seeks to publicize the element of foreign funding. So what is wrong here? A multitude of important matters of principle and of ethics that bear directly upon the dangerous course the mainstream right has set for the state of Israel.

First, the law deliberately ignores foreign funding whose source is not governments but individuals. This is because the US and European governments generally fund human rights NGOs in Israel whose activities are anathema to the Israeli pro-settler right with its anti-two-state agenda. In contrast, American far right-wingers like Sheldon Adelson and the late Irving Moskowitz funnel money to extremist settler groups whose activities endanger primary Israeli values like democracy, Zionism and the Jewish identity of the state, without this being revealed aggressively to the public.

Second, in Israel all NGOs are obliged to report annually to the government their primary sources of funding. This information is available to the public on the web. In other words, this latest measure is a kind of “outing” that is superfluous in terms of the public’s need to know. Incidentally, even this more modest reporting requirement--a compromise measure enacted a few years ago--is foreign to most western governments.

Third, funding of NGO activity by one democratic country in another goes on all the time, everywhere. There are think tanks in Washington whose activities are sponsored by Norway and Qatar. The EU funds campaigns in the US against the death penalty. Israel itself funds certain activities in the US and Europe. None of this is singled out or stigmatized by host countries. People who live in glass houses . . .

Fourth, the sponsors of this latest Israeli measure argue that the donor countries are interfering in internal Israeli affairs. Nearly all the NGOs singled out by the new law engage in human rights-related activities relating primarily to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These areas are now “internal”? That really lets the cat out of the bag and reveals the true intention of the measure’s sponsors: to silence those who advocate a policy regarding these occupied territories that might still have a chance of preventing Israel from becoming an apartheid state. Incidentally, in many instances the NGOs are simply trying to get Israel to enforce its own laws regarding issues such as illegal settlements and equal treatment under the law.

Fifth, many of those right-wingers who have been campaigning for years for this measure are hypocrites. During the years 2001-2012, when I and a Palestinian partner were managing the bitterlemons.net series of online debates and exchanges of views among Israelis, Palestinians and others from the Middle East and beyond, most of our funding came from the EU, the US, and specific European governments. We paid our writers handsomely: 250 or 300 euros per article. I made a point of frequently hosting right-wing Israelis. When I noted to them that they were being paid with the very same EU-origin NGO funds they were lobbying against, they never blinked. They continued writing and drawing their checks. Their names are easily discernible on the bitterlemons websites, where, incidentally, the EU itself used to insist that we openly advertise its sponsorship.

At the end of the day the law’s purpose is to encourage popular hostility against Israeli advocates of human and minority rights. Earlier versions (eventually dropped by the sponsors) actually mandated special badges for NGO representatives visiting the Knesset and prior governmental approval for NGOs to accept funding. That the law that was ultimately passed confines itself to aspects of “transparency” like official stationery appears to indicate that the ruling pro-settler right-wing mainstream in Israel still has a few inhibitions. Accordingly, a resolute and aggressive response from the US and Europe might conceivably have some effect.


Q. The truck attack in Nice on Bastille Day, July 14 no longer appears unusual. Can you add anything of relevance to the multitude of commentary we have heard and read already?

A. Two comments made in the aftermath by France’s political leadership are worthy of our attention. They appear to apply equally to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Whether these self-same French leaders could have done a better job of preventing the attack--and there are plenty of “we told you do” statements emanating from nearly all quarters--is almost irrelevant.

First, French President Francois Hollande, last Friday: “The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism.” This sounds like the kind of statement usually made in Israel. Sadly, I fear that Hollande is right--from the French perspective and from the perspective of nearly every other country.

One explanation why Hollande is right was provided a day later by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve: “We are now facing individuals who are responding positively to the messages issued by the Islamic State without having had any special training.” IS may indeed be losing men and territory in the Levant and in Libya. But its virtual presence and influence are growing. The internet provides detailed terrorism manuals for would-be perpetrators of atrocities like the Nice truck driver. Indeed, for at least two years these IS and Qaeda manuals have been advocating precisely the sort of truck rampage that we witnessed in Nice.

Nor does the terrorist have to have been trained in a Qaeda or ISIS camp or even have listened to incendiary preachers in mosques: it’s all on the web. We saw this in San Bernardino and Orlando in the US and on numerous occasions in Israel and the West Bank in the course of the past year. All you need is motivation, which frequently means little more than troubles at home. Why take out your frustrations on your wife and kids or your schoolmates when you can kill infidels and go down in history as a shaheed.


Q. And what was relevant about the failed military coup in Turkey?

A. From Israel’s standpoint, a lot. Israel just reached a rapprochement with President Erdogan, Turkish aid to Gaza has begun to flow, the countries plan to exchange ambassadors within weeks, and PM Netanyahu successfully “cleared” the deal with the Russians and the Egyptians, both of whom had important reservations regarding any gesture toward Turkey. So the first question is, will the deal stand? From this standpoint, it was important for the Netanyahu government on Saturday afternoon to express its support for Turkey’s “democratic process”, if not for Erdogan himself; better late than never.

Here we must bear in mind that domestic repression in Turkey that is associated with Erdogan will now almost certainly get worse. When Erdogan says that the failed coup was a “gift from God”, he means that the arrest since Saturday of many thousands of army officers, police, regional governors and judges on charges of sedition is just a beginning. The lists being used for the arrests clearly existed prior to the coup. And when Erdogan tells his most fervent supporters to remain on the streets and in the city squares even though the coup is over, the potential for them to be directed toward vigilante action against the secular and Kurdish opposition to Erdogan is obvious, even though nearly all political opposition figures condemned the coup from the start. The more arrests and unrest, the more denial of basic judicial rights, the more closing of media outlets, the greater the potential for Turkish-Israeli relations and even Turkish NATO membership to be affected. As one Turkish political commentator told me ominously on Monday, “constantly calling their agitated public to the streets may yet turn into a disaster.”

Notably, at least one of the senior generals implicated in the plot, former Air Force chief Erdal Ozturk, had a strong Israel connection: he was Turkey’s military attache in Israel from 1996 to 1998, when the military still called the shots in Turkey and Israeli-Turkish military and intelligence cooperation was at its peak.

As of Monday, the Israeli media were reporting that senior government figures in Ankara had reassured Jerusalem that all was well in the newly restored relationship.

An additional feature of interest to all those following the chaos in the Middle East over the past five and half years was the role played by the smartphone in quelling this coup. We recall that the smartphone and social media were instrumental in spreading the initial message of revolution and catalyzing mass anti-government demonstrations in Egypt in January of 2011. We also note that subsequent regimes in Cairo have been quick to jail the secular high-tech activists who made their mark on events back then, precisely in order to prevent a repeat. This tactic was not lost on Erdogan, who prior to the coup was actively suppressing social media in Turkey because on balance it appeared to carry messages critical of his autocratic behavior.

And now, lo and behold, it is Erdogan who successfully uses the FaceTime app on his iphone on the long night of the coup to inform the Turkish public that he is alive and well and to rally Turks to his cause. Clearly, the interplay between smartphones, the social media and Middle East chaos just witnessed an upgrade. Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess.

Finally, there are unanswered questions about this coup attempt that could affect Turkey’s relations with both Israel and the US. Was the Gulen movement, based in Pennsylvania but known to have adherents in high places in Turkey, behind this or in any way involved? Alternatively, was this clumsy coup so useful for Erdogan that he let it happen so he could exploit the aftermath to render more permanent his brand of authoritarian Islamist democracy?