Ethics? Forget About It

The members of the Zamir Committee, which formulated an ethics code for the Knesset, recently announced they were boycotting discussions of their recommendations by the special Knesset panel headed by MK David Tal (Kadima). Their decision followed the lawmakers' refusal to adopt the main recommendation of the Zamir Committee - the appointment of an ethical adviser to the Knesset who would handle complaints, respond to MKs' queries on ethical issues and deal with ethics education.

Retired Supreme Court justice Itzhak Zamir headed the committee. It originally intended to recommend appointing an ethics commissioner who could initiate complaints against MKs. Such commissioners have been appointed in many parliaments in the West. However, the idea was dropped in light of opposition to it. The committee instead proposed an ethics adviser who could not initiate complaints, and that compromise was turned down by the legislature.

When former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) appointed the Zamir Committee in August 2003, he explained: "A large part of the public sees us as a collection of sinners here mainly for ourselves. The Knesset's status is being increasingly eroded. We must purify our camp, first and foremost by observing the laws of ethics to the letter, which will restore this house's dignity." Meanwhile the motivation of MKs to purify the camp seems to have greatly declined.

The truth is that the issue of the adviser is not the main thorn in discussing the ethics code. Rather, it's that the Zamir Committee submitted its recommendations at the beginning of 2007. A year and eight months have passed, and the 17th Knesset might dissolve at any moment, and Tal's committee has not yet completed the new code. During the summer session Tal's committee held only one meeting. So far, during the summer recess, no meeting has been scheduled. The MKs seem to be in no hurry.

If the Knesset dissolves in the coming months, Tal admits, there is no chance that any version of the ethics code will pass. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik views the Zamir Committee's recommendations to give the Ethics Committee more powers as important.

The Zamir Committee proposed fining Knesset members up to one month's salary for every infraction of ethics and prohibiting offenders from serving in senior Knesset posts. This recommendation, too, might be deeply buried in a drawer.

True, the Zamir Committee itself was in no rush; its deliberations took three years. But precisely because of that foot-dragging, the 17th Knesset must act much more quickly. The fact is, when something is really important to Tal, he knows how to move it along. He scheduled a series of long meetings on the referendum bill during the recess so as to get the controversial law passed at the beginning of the winter session.

It has been argued that discussing such a significant issue as the ethics code during recess, when many MKs are absent, is inappropriate. But the referendum seems no less a pivotal issue, and yet it is being deliberated during the recess. And experience shows that even when the Knesset was in session, only two or three lawmakers bothered to show up at meetings on the proposed code. That's not because they have other things to do; the subject simply does not interest them.

If the 17th Knesset disbands without passing the new ethics code, it will have demeaned itself. To prevent this debasement, Tal's special committee must hold three or four marathon meetings during the Knesset recess and agree on a version of the code. It is not too much to ask. These meetings must be held even if the MKs are determined not to appoint an ethical adviser - even if the Zamir Committee's members persist in their boycott.

The code must be passed during the recess or, at the latest, by the first day of the winter session - that is, before elections. Otherwise, the lawmakers will be understood to be saying: "We are in favor of the present anarchy in ethics. Our image may be poor, but it's fun to do as we please, and not be punished for it."