MKs Mixed on Reform to Weaken Business, Gov't Ties

MK Shelly Yachimovich: Assault by big business on government and the Knesset is becoming clearer by the day

The recommendations in the committee discussing government policy on relations between big business and state officials provoked mixed responses among MKs yesterday.

Shelly Yachimovich
Tess Scheflan

The assault by big business on government and the Knesset is becoming clearer by the day, said MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ), chairwoman of the Ethics Committee. "Increasing transparency could be a wonderful remedy," she said.

Yachimovich strongly supports the committee's apparent recommendation of requiring all public officials to disclose their business relationships when taking office, as well as the requirements taking shape about statements of wealth.

The committee, founded by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and headed by Prof. Abraham Friedman, will soon publish an interim report on its recommendations. Key among them is a demand that upon taking office, public officials would have to disclose their business contacts; we would then be able to track whether these colleagues give them donations or other forms of financing.

But while most Knesset members say they support transparency, plenty are likely to oppose the more extreme recommendations such as being required to publish their schedules. And few seem to side with the idea of banning ministers from meeting alone with businessmen. Yachimovich herself, a vociferous critic of cozy ties between business and government, doesn't like that one.

In support of chaperones

"People who take the public stage and deal with issues that touch on the public have to pay a proportional price of a certain impairment of their privacy," she said. They should be required to disclose their funding sources. But, she added, "I oppose the recommendation of prohibiting meetings of elected officials alone with businessmen."

It's an insult to the minister's discretion and impairs the minister's freedom to decide on his own agenda, and with whom to meet, Yachimovich explained. "Naturally, I demand that politicians not be the minions of business interests," she said. But slapping restrictions on their meetings is not the way. It detracts from their rights and sovereignty.

Aryeh Eldad (National Union ), former chairman of the Knesset Ethics Committee, called for the recommendations to be approved in full. (Not that they have been officially released yet. ) Too often, tycoons receive profligate benefits beyond what a person without such contacts in government would receive, Eldad said.

He supports restrictions on meetings between elected officials and business interests. As the committee will apparently be recommending, any such meetings should be chaperoned by officials from the cabinet member's ministry, who would serve as witnesses that the proprieties were observed.

"If the media creates the appropriate public atmosphere, then any [MKs] opposing the recommendations apparently have something to hide, or intentions to forge illicit relations with business," Eldad said. "People without ties to business have nothing to hide or to fear from the recommendations."

Importing ministers from Scandinavia?

Menachem Mazuz, a former attorney general, hasn't commented much since leaving office, but he did so yesterday. "There is a danger that business interests will influence government," he said. "This needs to be handled by increasing transparency and supervising elected officials throughout their terms in office and afterwards as well, to see if they took actions deriving from improper relations" with big business.

MK Roni Bar-On (Kadima ) said that when he was finance minister under Ehud Olmert, he never held a meeting without officials from his ministry at his side.

"But one should keep in mind that the minister was elected by the public. Even if there were plenty of cases of irregularities among elected officials who stumbled, one shouldn't make it a rule that every meeting with an elected official has the potential to corrupt," Bar-On said. "The proposed prohibition would make it impossible for elected officials to do their jobs."

Under the proposed concept, Bar-On added, "The only people to enter politics would he people with no social or professional connections. We might have to import ministers from Scandinavia, or clone some type of sociopath. On the contrary, we need elected officials who are involved in the community and who have been in the private sector as well, not people who grew up only in politics. At the end of the day we live in a tiny village where everybody knows almost everybody else."