Does Deputy Minister Have Ties With Haredi Charity Set to Benefit From Child Safety System Law?

Osnat Nir
Osnat Nir
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Deputy Transportation Minister Ori Maklev (United Torah Judaism)
Deputy Transportation Minister Ori Maklev (United Torah Judaism)Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Osnat Nir
Osnat Nir

More than a few eyebrows were raised at the urgency with which the Transportation Ministry advanced regulation requiring vehicles to contain a high-tech device to prevent young children from being forgotten inside.

The regulation was approved last month, after three discussions in the Knesset Finance Committee. From August 1, any vehicle used to transport children under 4 must include a system that complies with the regulations. From January 1, 2022, drivers can be fined 250 shekels ($76) for failing to have such a system; the offense will be considered a 4-point moving violation. There are about 800,000 children under 4 in Israel; the Transportation Ministry estimates that about 1 million vehicles will be fitted with the system by August 1.

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Professionals, civil-society organizations, the Finance Ministry and even the prime minister questioned the Transportation Ministry’s insistence on forcing parents to install such systems. The criticism focused on the cost to families, the contention that the ministry had not fully examined the matter and suspicions that the legislation was intended to serve hidden business interests – suspicions that Transportation Ministry Director General Ofer Malka rejected during the Knesset committee deliberations.

The regulation is expected to benefit, naturally, manufacturers, importers and installers of the systems. Less than two weeks ago the Transportation Ministry issued a directive to manufacturers that had submitted responses to the ministry’s request for proposals from six months ago. It contained requirements for obtaining approval for their systems that were not emphasized in the original RFP.

These included a “license to trade in transportation products” and certification from a vehicle testing laboratory. The latter advantages products that connect to the vehicle’s own circuitry. There are several such systems on the market, including Zechoroti and Intervox’s BabyBox.

These conditions work against small importers and independent manufacturers whose products don’t connect to the car’s internal systems, such as smartphone apps or products that connect via the cigarette lighter. These companies need to obtain Transportation Ministry licenses, which generally involves a payment to the ministry and testing labs.

In the Knesset committee debates, some speakers brought up the derided 2006 law requiring drivers to keep a fluorescent yellow safety vest in their cars. The goal was to prevent them from being hit in the event they have to stop on the shoulder, but the law was passed due to pressure from the multinational conglomerate 3M, which hired Israel’s Gilad Government Relations & Lobbying. While the child alert systems are not being mandated for all cars in Israel, they cost much, much more than a thin yellow vest.

A vehicle in which an 18-month-old was left for three hours and died, in Ashdod, 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag

During the approval process for the alarm systems, accusing fingers were pointed primarily at Transportation Minister Miri Regev and at Malka. The director general gave numerous speeches emphasizing how important the systems were for saving children’s lives. Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) escaped criticism – even though he was involved in the safety vest law as chairman of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee.

“The Transportation Ministry won’t settle for suggestions. We need something mandatory, a revision to the requirements. That’s what I’m aiming for, and I know I’ll wind up in conflict with the professionals,” Maklev said during a debate on the systems in the Knesset Special Committee for the Rights of the Child in August. “There are products that can do the job for less than 1,000 shekels. What’s available on Amazon. I’m not talking about any particular business, I don’t have shares in this.”

Maklev went on to describe the system sold on Amazon: “People install them voluntarily. It wasn’t invented to prevent children from being forgotten in cars. It was invented in the United States so that people wouldn’t forget their tefillin, which are expensive and quickly damaged in the sun.”

The system sounds an alarm if the car’s rear door is opened before a trip but not afterward, Maklev explained. He criticized the fact that it didn’t meet Israeli standards because it wasn’t approved by Israeli laboratories, and suggested changing local standards accordingly.

While Maklev didn’t mention any product names, this description matches the product developed by Zechoroti, which is sold in Israel by Belev Echad, a nonprofit association. It retails on Amazon for $130 plus $50 shipping to Israel, while Belev Echad charges 1,000 shekels plus installation – more than the cost a consumer would pay for ordering it from Amazon and having it installed in Israel.

Maklev described Zechoroti’s product during a 2017 Knesset Science and Technology Committee debate, again without mentioning it by name.

Belev Echad, headed by David Vitman, is registered as a charity that “holds volunteer and therapeutic activities for the sick or hospitalized, holds cultural events for children and adults in hospitals and community institutions, helps the needy and their family by providing money and things of monetary value, holds charity events, and transports the disabled to hospitals.”

The Zechoroti system is expected to enjoy very high demand ahead of August 1, when the law goes into effect, thanks to the new regulations. In an effort to understand Belev Echad’s connection to Zechoroti, TheMarker called the charity’s call center, which also takes orders for Zechoroti. A representative stated that the product, which is sold on Amazon under the brand name Ride&Remind, is manufactured by Vitman’s uncle, a U.S. resident.

A child in a rear-facing carseatCredit: Matt Roth / The New York Times

Belev Echad acknowledged the connection but said the system still doesn’t have official Israeli standards approval, adding that only 20 Zechoroti systems have been sold in Israel in the past two years. It added that the Knesset committee debates had increased interest in Zechoroti and that Belev Echad was preparing to fill hundreds of orders.

The regulations approved by the Knesset stated that an alert system does not need Israeli approval. The less-strict Italian standard is sufficient. It doesn’t require Israeli laboratory approval, which costs manufacturers around 100,000 shekels. The Transportation Ministry stated that this would enable more manufacturers and importers to meet the standard. Belev Echad said Zechoroti meets European standards.

An expert in child safety systems who spoke on condition of anonymity said 90% of the products on the market use a smartphone app. Members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community tend to have families with above-average numbers of children, and also often don’t have smartphones. That makes the Zechoroti system a particularly relevant option for them. It’s not inconceivable that the Transportation Ministry could later push to have Zechoroti subsidized for consumers, given its high cost.

In the August committee debate, Maklev stated that he had no ties to Zechoroti, imported by Belev Echad. “I’m not familiar with them,” he said at the time, repeating this claim later in conversation with TheMarker.

But that may not be true. TheMarker asked Maklev explicitly about Belev Echad and its ties to Zechoroti. Maklev stated in response, “Correct, Belev Echad is tied to [Zechoroti’s product] but it’s from Amazon.” Belev Echad stated that five years ago, it demonstrated Zechoroti’s product for Maklev – meaning he’d been aware of it and its connection to the charity for years.

There’s another contradiction in Maklev’s claim that Belev Echad contacted him only after he started advancing the law. “I have no acquaintance with the NGO in this context. It’s possible that I attended one of their child-related events years ago, but I don’t have any further acquaintance with them.”

And yet, a quick Google search reveals pictures of Maklev participating in at least three Belev Echad events – a 2014 Purim party, a 2016 Sukkot event and a 2019 event at an amusement park.

A representative for Maklev stated: “The deputy minister is proud of his activity to prevent children from being forgotten in cars. The only thing concerning him is preventing the tragic injury and death of children forgotten in cars. In his different roles he has worked with honesty to advance this goal and worked for years to find various accessible solutions for the public.

“Contrary to the allegations, a variety of products and their developers were presented in the various committees, including NGOs and private entities. The attempt by the opponents of the regulations to prove that alleged narrow interests are at play here are baseless. Maklev is proud of the regulations, which enable vehicle owners to freely choose from the products available on the free market.”

Belev Echad stated: “The NGO hosts events and activities for children with special needs. We invite rabbis and public figures as a matter of respect and also to bring the families strength.

“Our goal in bringing Zechoroti to Israel is saving children’s lives. The NGO is a nonprofit. The product is available on Amazon for $188 including taxes and shipping, and can be installed independently or by a professional. Based on a review we conducted before importing the product, a professional installation would cost at least 500 shekels.

“In order to check whether the product meets Israeli standards, we contacted many public figures, including Maklev. Maklev directed us to representatives of the Israeli Standards Institute and the Transportation Ministry, who are responsible for the existing standards. Belev Echad and Maklev do not stand to profit personally from selling the product, aside from the great privilege of saving lives.”

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