'Right-wing Economic Lobby' With Populist Agenda Makes Knesset Debut

Our Interest says it aims to protect average Israelis from ‘pressure groups’ while promoting a freer market

Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
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Empty seats in the Knesset.
Empty seats in the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

The Knesset is in election recess for the third time this year. Except for the lawmakers and their aides, who have had little to do for most of the past year, another group of professionals suffering from underemployment are the lobbyists who make their living from the Knesset.

Despite this, there’s someone who’s decided that the recess won’t stop him and these days is forming a nonprofit lobby calling itself Our Interest, which aims to represent the economic interests of the broad public in the Knesset.

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If this sounds like a familiar goal, it’s because there already is one social lobby in the Knesset. Called Lobby 99, its goal is to speak for the average citizen and serve as a counterweight to the big corporations and the tycoon class, who spend millions of shekels every year on lobbyists to advance their interest with lawmakers.

The difference between Our Interest and Lobby 99 is that the new organization defines itself as a “right-wing economic lobby.” Lobby 99 regards the tycoons as a power that has to be fought; Our Interest sees itself as protecting the public from what it calls “pressure groups.”

Those pressure groups are first and foremost the union locals at big companies and government monopolies.

“We want to focus on three core areas: the cost of living, which includes ending protective tariffs and opening the economy up to free imports; transportation issues or the freedom of transportation in Israel; and the issue of labor law, including limitations on the right to strike by workers providing critical services,” Elad Malka, director and founder of the new lobby, said on Wednesday.

Malka is a member of the Jerusalem City Council for the Hitorerut (Awakening) movement.

With him in the lobby is a group of activists who identify themselves first and foremost as economic liberals, among them Dr. Amatzia Samkai, an economist who wrote the economic platform for the National Union Party, and attorney Doron Nehemiah, who has written articles criticizing the power of the justice system.

“The idea behind starting a lobby came to me after the first round of elections. We understood that a lot of people believe in the free market but they are dispersed in terms of political affiliation across the spectrum between Zehut [Moshe Feiglin’s party] and Kahol Lavan,” said Malka.

“My idea was that out of this situation we could create a group that could operate on a political level. During the period when I ran the Society for the Public’s Right to Know (a nonprofit critical of the news media) I was exposed to the work of lobbyists, and saw the impact they had for their clients on the decision-making process, because of their ability to find the right time to put the right material in front of the right person. The broad public pays a price for this,” he said.

Malka said he received job offers from lobbying firms that would have required him to abandon his values, so instead he decided to employ his knowledge and skills in “something I believe in.” Other team members were recruited and they developed the lobby’s focus.

“Our idea is that the wide public has to be there. Despite the political imbroglio right now, we decided that we couldn’t wait. We need to work opposite the professional level [in the government] and other players in the market,” he said.

Our Interest is embarking on a crowdfunding campaign. The goal is to raise 40,000 shekels ($11,600) a month. As of Wednesday afternoon, they had raised 1,400, The group has set a maximum contribution of no more than 8% of its annual budget from any one individual or organization.

For comparison’s sake, Lobby 99 has set an annual budget ofapproximately 3.3 million shekels for 2020, which it has raised from some 6,100 contributors. It employs a full-time staff of 10.

These days the right has also been taking initiatives beyond lobbying. A group of former Zehut Party members announced two weeks ago that it would compete in the next election under the banner of the New Liberal Party.

The party is led by Libby Molad, who was No. 5 on Zehut’s Knesset list in the April election, and includes Boaz Arad, Yaron Lerman and Rafael Minnes.

The new party presents a challenge to Naftali Bennett, the defense minister, who plans to focus his Hayemin Hehadash party’s campaign on a socioeconomic agenda.

In fact, this week Bennett had low-profile talks with the New Liberal Party about merging with his party. The odds of it coming off are good. Bennett remembers how a shortfall of just 1,000 votes prevented his party from reaching the threshold for entering the Knesset in the April election.

In an electoral system where a few thousand votes can mean the difference between being a minister in the security cabinet or returning to private life, every micro-party that declares itself in the race for Knesset has considerable power.