Unholy Alliances in the Knesset's Hallowed Halls

How deeply entrenched are the lobbyists? Well, for instance, some parliamentary aides and even some ministerial advisers were hired at their advice.

The Knesset's hallowed halls are the fief not only of Israel's elected officials, but of a host of lobbyists as well. How do they work? Whom do they represent? To what degree do they have power, and where do they get their clout? The extent of their influence may surprise the ordinary citizen who has no idea how many laws of the land the lobbyists help shape.

Some of these questions were answered by investigative television series "Uvda" ("Fact" ), which last night aired an expose about lobbyists in the Knesset that its subjects feel is biased. Worse, they fear the show could spur Knesset members to ban them from the building outright. The idea has come up before.

The Knesset - Emil Salman - 09022012
Emil Salman

Certainly, illusions do not abound. "The lobbyists represent the tycoons," a top source at the Knesset told TheMarker on Wednesday. "Many of the Knesset members don't want to take on the tycoons because they're afraid of getting 'marked'."

Knesset members and Knesset officials may feel they have to stay in touch with lobbyists, the source continued baldly, "otherwise, when their term in office is over they'll be dead meat. It isn't that easy to just tell a lobbyist to get lost. The psychological pressure is tremendous," he said.

It is true that not everybody cooperates with lobbyists, the source admitted. Others cooperate with them on a wink-wink basis. But often, it's a win-win situation for both parliamentarians and lobbyists - the elected official pushes a law the lobbyist wants (for the greater good of his client ), and the Knesset member gets publicity, the source said.

How deeply entrenched are the lobbyists? To put it one way, some parliamentary aides to Knesset members and even some ministerial advisers were hired following recommendations from lobbyists. "Some lobbyists even began their careers as advisers to Knesset members and ministers," the source said. "They know how things work from the inside. They know the system and the people involved. These people are their friends."

The deadly sin of sloth

To be sure, one of the ways lobbyists can have an impact is by exploiting the all-too-human weakness of sloth. Usually known as one of the seven deadly sins, sloth could explain why certain Knesset members don't do their own homework. A stellar example of this malpractice is the Sheshinski committee.

The committee, chaired by economist Eytan Sheshinski, was convened by government to recommend how much the state should collect in royalties from private enterprises exploiting the vast natural gas fields found in the Mediterranean seabed. The stakes were tremendous. The more the state took, the less the companies would earn, and they sent their lobbyists to the Knesset in droves to argue their case. (For instance, the companies argued that the risks involved are huge, so their reward in the case of success should be commensurately large. )

The companies strained to influence Knesset members, seeking help in deflecting the committee's tendency to increase the state's royalties, and they found at least some willing ears. "Some lobbyists would prepare a position paper in advance," said the source. They would give these papers to pet Knesset members who would simply read from them to the Sheshinski committee.

The Knesset has a number of permanent committees, such as the Knesset Finance Committee, to which lobbyists have limited access, but there's hardly a law in which lobbyists didn't get involved in some way, said the source. "The public has no clue about the true extent of legislation resulting from activity by lobbyists behind the scenes. It's so bad that lobbyists want to know exactly what each minister is doing at each hour of the day, where they are, and with whom they meet."

And they're proud of it

The "Uvda" investigation found nothing that hadn't been common knowledge, the source summed up. "If there was something noteworthy about the show, it was that the lobbyists were openly, arrogantly proud of what they do," he said.

These days lobbyists traipsing through the Knesset have to wear orange ribbons identifying them as such, thanks to a law sponsored by MK Shelly Yachimovich. Also, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has been taking action to limit their activities, the source said. Yet there they are, and they aren't going anywhere.

The Knesset source may feel the "Uvda" investigation had nothing new to say, but some lobbyists were deeply offended, according to a letter they jointly wrote to Rivlin. They were "disgusted" by the "cynical and haughty" manner in which their activity was portrayed, wrote the lobbyists, who included Orly Ben-Shamai of Impact, Ruth Preminger of Preminger Consulting Regulation and Lobbying, Behira Bardugo of Peace Now, Nir Kleiner, a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies, Keren Barak (who contended in Likud primaries but didn't win a critical mass of support ).

"Uvda" followed a training course for lobbyists, showing the teachers happily boasting of how they had managed to influence elected officials, to hoodwink them and to exploit them to push products into the Israeli market through legislation. The course, conducted by the company Gilad - Government Relations & Lobbying, showed how a law requiring drivers stuck by the roadside to wear fluorescent yellow vests had been enacted. Ditto for a law governing vaccinations for women against the papilloma virus.

"As experienced lobbyists, we felt great embarrassment at the broadcast," the lobbyists wrote to Rivlin, contending that the show did not faithfully represent how they work. "We are proud of our work, which we carry out for a range of companies, associations and nonprofit organizations. We do it ethically, transparently and honestly, and have great respect for the legislative house and its elected officials."

Lobbying is part of the democratic way, they added.

"It is perfectly legitimate to promote interests, as long as it's done properly, professionally and transparently," the lobbyists' wrote, adding that it is wrong to stain an entire industry just because this or that one erred. In short, they said they felt the "Uvda" program did wrong by the Knesset members, and by them.

They would be happy to take part in formulating procedures to govern the work by lobbyists in the Knesset, they finished.

None of that helps dispel the suspicion that their activity tightens illicit relations between big business and government. Or the suspicion that alien interests could supersede the public interest.

Rivlin himself commented after the show that he was "shocked". He also said he was deeply worried by the conduct of MKs who think their future depends on their ties with business. "There is a conspiracy to turn the Knesset into a means to attain unkosher achievements," he said.

Gilad Lobbying professes contrition

Gilad - Government Relations & Lobbying on Wednesday sent a contrite letter to all Knesset members, pointing a finger of blame at errant workers.

The company sees lobbying as a "management tool serving to enhance democracy, transparency and professionalism," it wrote. They thoroughly investigate the burning issues of the day, Gilad wrote: "Unfortunately, some of the company's workers tripped over their tongues and said things in a manner that does not comply with the company's values."

The way the teachers spoke with their students at the lobbying course is "not our way," wrote the company. "Moreover, we are confident that these things do not reflect the day-to-day reality that lobbyists at Gilad experience, without exception, throughout 15 years of activity in the Knesset, during which time we have been proud to work alongside you, the active, involved and diligent Knesset members who do holy work for the public in Israel."

Dan Tichon, a former Knesset speaker, is one who finds lobbyists' ubiquity uncharming, it seems. Speaking at a conference on economic concentration at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa earlier this week, Tichon called lobbyists a "bottleneck," and their presence in the Knesset "scandalous."

"When I was a Knesset member, I tried to import Haagen Dazs ice cream to Israel. it turned into a political battle. Suddenly Knesset members showed up at the Knesset Finance Committee who I'd never seen before in my life," he recalled.

Yachimovich isn't a fan either, and thinks lobbyists should be barred entirely, until "conclusions are reached and lessons learned." She means to demand that the attorney general investigate the relations between lobbying company Gilad and Knesset members, to check for fraud, she said. Yachimovich did manage to get through a law four years ago limiting lobbyists' activities, but evidently that didn't do enough. "Knesset members should be prohibited from contact with lobbyists," she said. "In my six years in the Knesset, I have barred lobbyists from my office. We haven't exchanged a word. That's the only way to deal with the manipulations, the open and covert corruption, and the vast power of money."