Israel’s Parliament and Its Encouraging of Corruption

Knesset members don’t even hide the fact that the goal is to bury legislation, not debate it. That better serves their narrow political interests.

Emil Salman

The low point apparently occurred at a Knesset debate on Monday. MKs from the governing coalition were insisting that legislation on the Jewish National Fund be removed from the Economic Arrangements Bill that accompanies the budget bill. Instead, the JNF would be dealt with separately.

The JNF, founded in 1901 to acquire and develop land in trust for the Jewish people, is actually a black hole fed with billions of shekels in public funds. It receives this in compensation for the sale of its land by the Israel Land Authority.

This occurs without supervision or complete disclosure. And until recently, even the state comptroller wasn’t able to audit the organization, even though it has been serving anonymous political interests.

Meanwhile, the JNF has been managed based on parties’ share of seats in the Knesset. That makes it a political entity that can allocate major funding to political goals as it sees fit.

The person pulling the strings at the JNF in recent years has been Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. The amendment to the JNF law is designed to establish a mechanism for using JNF funds in the real estate and infrastructure sectors based on the country’s needs.

The amendment has received sweeping support from the government, and in a properly run system it would easily pass in parliament. Legislators wouldn’t criticize such an amendment that clearly promotes the proper management of public funds. And don’t forget that this year’s amendment was part of a much shorter Economic Arrangements Bill than normal.

Over the years, MKs have complained bitterly about the arrangements bill, a huge piece of legislation that brings together hundreds of different laws. The government therefore has been able to use this complicated bill to bypass scrutiny in the Knesset.

And now, finally, the government has addressed these concerns. This year’s arrangements bill is focusing on budgetary amendments, including a modest number of structural reforms. The JNF provision and recommendations by a committee on reforming the health care system are about the only reforms on the agenda.

MKs therefore had no reason to complain about this year’s arrangements bill, which addresses their complaints and allows for serious consideration of the few structural reforms in play.

But it’s actually here where the MKs’ shortcomings have been revealed. They’re not concerned about proper democratic procedure and the protection of the Knesset’s autonomy vis-à-vis the government, an issue they’ve talked about for years. The only thing that interests them is the protection of their narrow political interests.

Transferring funds to the territories

The evidence in support: the Knesset assault on the small number of provisions in the Economic Arrangements Bill; the key issue being the amendment on the JNF. This offensive is being led by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the party that’s currently pulling the strings at the JNF.

And what’s the argument against the amendment, which is designed to free up billions of shekels to develop infrastructure and the real estate sector?

It turns out that local authority heads from West Bank settlements appeared before the Knesset claiming that it was easier to transfer funds to the territories and the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division via the JNF. (The governmental arm of the settlement enterprise is another entity managed away from the public eye). JNF officials explained to the MKs that, via the JNF, funds for Zionist and Jewish goals could be transferred, a Knesset source said.

Things need to be stated as they are. Officials of the JNF and the settlement movement are boasting that the Jewish National Fund is actually a secret stash of funds that dodges supervision.

That is, the JNF is run beyond public supervision; in recent years it has been a key tool to fund the settlement enterprise without oversight. From the Knesset’s point of view, this has turned it from a liability into an asset.

Therefore, according to the Knesset’s logic, the JNF needs to be maintained in its current form so it can continue to trample on the law, bypass public oversight, be run in improperly and serve as the MKs’ petty cash container (in the current incarnation, to fund the settlements).

It turns out the improper management of the JNF is precisely the reason MKs are being called on to protect it. They want it to be able to direct funds wherever they please.

It doesn’t matter so much what the funding’s purpose is, whether the West Bank territories, political appointments, help for the heads of municipal authorities to solidify their standing, or anything else.

Proud to be dubious

Important is that we’re talking about unsupervised money that can be played with as the MKs wish. And MKs aren’t even embarrassed that this is their worldview. They talk about it openly.

Remember that the Knesset wailed that the government was trampling on it and breaching democratic values whenever it submitted an arrangements bill that was too large for a serious debate in parliament. According to this argument, it’s simply impossibly for the Knesset to supervise the government in an era of chunky arrangements bills.

So the government kindly provided an arrangements bill that wasn’t terrifying. It was a singular effort to demonstrate Israel’s high quality of parliamentary oversight — oversight that's actually meant to work against proper management, the public interest and even the law.

Let me venture a prediction about a country where parliament protects the right of public entities to operate in obscurity. I’ll guess this a country where prime ministers (and maybe defense ministers?) might stand trial in the future for criminal acts. There’s a direct link between the standard the Knesset is setting and the corruption that may later be uncovered by the police.

The oversight that the Knesset is currently employing is harmful. MKs take the government to task, but not themselves. MKs complain that the government is preventing them from supervising things properly, but then they don’t show up for committee hearings.

The Knesset spokesman said there weren’t even numbers on attendance at committees because the Knesset doesn’t bother to track this. And too often, when MKs do show up, the interests they represent aren’t the right ones.

Meanwhile, the demand that the arrangements bill be cut down to size to enable reasoned debate is also meaningless. The vast majority of provisions that were removed from arrangements bill in recent years for consideration as separate legislation did not receive a thorough debate. Other than the legislation designed to reduce food prices, which was split off and passed by the Knesset after an impressive debate, nearly all the other bills were buried in committee.

The MKs don’t even hide the fact that the goal is to bury legislation, not debate it. MKs are demanding that the JNF provision be referred to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which is controlled by Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem. They’re doing this even though it deals with a clearly budgetary issue and therefore should go to the Finance Committee.

Instead of parliamentary oversight and public debate, MKs are busy burying bills that don’t serve their personal or political interests. The shrinking of the arrangements bill, which was carried out to enhance democracy, is actually hurting our fragile democratic system. The government gave up its main means of passing reform legislation, and the Knesset fails to pass important reforms even in small numbers.

In all, what the Knesset is advancing reeks of improper interests and an erosion of the rule of law. If our parliament doesn’t quickly mend its ways, Israeli democracy could truly be in danger.