Ministers Insist on Policing Their Own Ethics Exceptions

The ministerial ethics committee and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss are at loggerheads over who is to decide on exceptions to rules regarding ministers' ethical conduct. The ministerial committee gave its agreement in principle to an ethics code proposed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman which would set up a new panel to deal with these exceptions, although there are details of the plan that are to be discussed with Lindenstrauss before the code is submitted for cabinet approval.

For his part, Lindenstrauss is insisting that the current committee, which operates under the auspices of his office should continue to rule on exceptions to the rules. The existing committee is completely independent and very experienced, and its members are appointed by a retired judge and a prestigious group of representatives of the public appointed by the comptroller himself, Lindenstrauss argued.

Yaakov Neeman
Daniel Bar-On

The ministerial ethics committee, which is chaired by Neeman, is proposing that the ethics exceptions committee consist of three people appointed by the cabinet and headed by a retired judge or someone who meets the qualifications to serve as a Supreme Court justice. Panel members would serve for five years and be able to solicit the opinion of the state comptroller before issuing rulings. All of the panel's rulings would then be sent to the attorney general and the state comptroller.

Lindenstrauss says the ethics exceptions rulings have to be made by a panel completely independent of the cabinet. He insists Neeman's proposal does not sufficiently distance the committee members from cabinet influence and the appearance of such influence. The plan would do damage to public trust in the work of the committee and by implication trust in the cabinet itself, Lindenstrauss claims. "The committee, which has been functioning for years, enjoys the necessary independence to carry out its important and sensitive function, and it would be a shame to harm this status," he insisted. There are other issues on which the ministerial ethics committee and the state comptroller also disagree: How long a period before assuming office should ministers be required to disclose their business dealings and wealth. A compromise is thought likely on those issues.

Lindenstrauss suggested disclosure of business dealings conducted for a year before appointment as a minister, whereas the ministerial ethics committee has been pushing for disclosure limited to three months before appointment to the cabinet.

The ministerial ethics committee was created about two years ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It received recommendations on an ethics code from a public committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar that are more stringent than standards proposed by Neeman's own committee.

This is reflected, for example, in the standards that ministers would be required to follow on the receipt of gifts. Shamgar's panel proposed that any item or service provided at a reduced price or for free would have to be reported, whereas according to Neeman's committee only items for which nothing was paid need be reported, and then only if the item went beyond what was termed a "reasonable gift."

Neeman's committee also proposed no limitation on ministers engaging in partisan political activity. The Shamgar panel proposed that they would only be allowed if they didn't interfere with the minister's fulfillment of his ministerial duties. And Shamgar's committee barred the ministers' use of government resources for elections, although Neeman's panel would allow it.