JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Cabinet ministers gave preliminary approval Sunday to a bill that imposes new disclosure requirements on nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding — drawing accusations the government was trying to crack down on government critics, rattling relations with Europe and deepening an increasingly toxic divide between liberal and hawkish Israelis.
Critics said the regulations are meant to stifle dovish organizations critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government policies toward the Palestinians, since such nonprofits tend to rely heavily on donations from European countries.
In contrast, pro-government and nationalistic nonprofit groups tend to rely on wealthy private donors, who are exempt from the measures under the bill. The legislature is expected to approve the bill as early as this week.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog quickly blasted the bill as a "muzzling law" that would bring about "thought police."
The bill, proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and approved by a committee of ministers, also dealt a new setback to already strained relations with the European Union, which funds a variety of nonprofit groups. Israeli leaders have been outraged over the EU's recent decision to require labels on imported products made in West Bank settlements.
"I expect the European Union to respect the democratic decisions of Israel," said Shaked, who has said the bill is merely meant to ensure transparency.
The bill requires organizations that receive more than half of their funds from a foreign government or entity to declare their sources of funding in reports and parliamentary discussions. Their activists also will be required to wear special tags when working in Israel's parliament.
All nonprofit groups are already required to file quarterly disclosure reports, regardless of their political leanings.
Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the additional measures are "likely to damage the functioning of civil society organizations, which provide many beneficial social service, educational, environmental and women's rights activities."
With Israel mired in a wave of near-daily violence with the Palestinians, hard-line lawmakers and activist groups have been stepping up the pressure on dovish opponents. Earlier this month, a nationalistic activist group called Im Tirtzu launched a fierce video campaign that accused human rights groups of being spies and foreign agents.
Such sentiments have tested Israel's democratic ideals at a time when the government is facing public anger over the continuing violence and growing international criticism of its policies toward the Palestinians. This sense of isolation is fueling what some say is a siege mentality that perceives opposition activists as the enemy.
Israel's Army Radio said Sunday that it had obtained an internal European Union document quoting the EU ambassador as telling Shaked that her bill would undermine Israel's image as a democratic and pluralistic country. The ambassador was reported as saying the bill is better suited for despotic regimes since it aims to discriminate against government critics. The EU's local office declined to comment on the report.
Groups affected by the bill said they were being unfairly singled out and noted that hard-line groups, including Im Tirtzu and organizations that support Jewish settlers in the West Bank, are exempt.
"If the minister of justice is truly interested in transparency, she must first and foremost promote legislation requiring right-wing organizations to expose the millions they receive from private donors abroad and from the state budget," said Peace Now, a group that opposes Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians.
Adalah, a group that promotes the rights of Israel's Arab minority, said the plan to make groups wear special tags "is an act of humiliation and incitement." The New Israel Fund, another group that supports liberal Israeli causes, said the bill would expand the "open season" on human rights activists.
Proponents of the bill say that foreign governments have standard diplomatic channels at their disposal through which they can push their agendas, and that funding nonprofit groups amounts to meddling in Israeli affairs.
Matan Peleg, director of Im Tirtzu, said European organizations "give small organizations in Israel super power."
"Why do you try to change us from within? Leave us alone," Peleg said.
A main target of the bill appeared to be Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli combat soldiers who criticize Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank.
The soldiers say they have come forward with their war stories to shine a light on problems either unknown or ignored by the public. But many Israeli leaders have portrayed them as traitors, in part because their reports and lectures are often aimed at foreign audiences.
"Instead of dealing with the violence of the radical right, they are putting up a smoke screen by picking on human rights groups in Israel," said Avihai Stollar, a spokesman for Breaking the Silence.