Israel attorney general won't back funding limits

AP News
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Posted: Dec 07, 2011 12:51 PM
Israel attorney general won't back funding limits

Israel's attorney general has said that controversial bills that would sharply restrict funding for dovish groups are starkly unconstitutional.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would not be able to defend the bills in court, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The bills "do grave damage to a string of constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and equal rights," said the letter sent to the prime minister's office last week.

The bills, approved last month by a ministerial committee, would limit annual donations to a single group by foreign governments or international bodies to 20,000 shekels, or about $5,000. They would also slap a 45 percent tax rate on the contributions.

The proposed legislation is among a raft of bills advanced under Netanyahu's government that critics say mean to stifle dissent and pluralism.

The funding measures "place Israel on a short list of countries that have adopted similar measures and whose regimes Israel should not envy or try to emulate," Weinstein wrote.

He said that while his office did not customarily declare legislation unconstitutional, he was doing so anyway, because of the "starkness of the case before us."

"If these bills become law, it will be impossible to defend them against the petitions that will be submitted to the Supreme Court," Weinstein said.

"I ask that you make sure that the Israeli Cabinet and coalition that you head oppose these bills," he added.

Netanyahu's office had no comment on Weinstein's letter. But shortly after the ministerial committee approved the bills in November, an Israeli official told the AP that they had been put on hold, following objections by foreign governments, Weinstein and even some Cabinet ministers.

The bills were drafted after Israel-based groups supported by foreign sources gave a U.N.-appointed commission unflattering testimony about Israeli military conduct during the 2009 war in the Gaza Strip.

Although the proposed legislation would apply to all "political" groups, critics see it aimed specifically at leftist organizations, which receive donations from foreign governments and agencies. Hawkish groups supportive of hardline governments such as Netanyahu's generally receive donations from wealthy individuals.

On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary weighed in on the proposed bills in Israel, saying his country was "deeply concerned."

"While the passing of legislation is a matter for the Israeli Knesset, we strongly call upon all involved to reconsider this move and for the Israeli government to make clear its own opposition to it," Hague said in a statement.

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Cassandra Vinograd reported from London.