Israel’s lobbying industry had a dramatic week. The website of a prominent lobbying firm involved in a corruption scandal was taken down and TikTok, the company behind the eponymous popular social media platform, has decided to hire a local lobbyist.
TikTok, owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, has taken on the services of lobbyist Dafna Cohen.
One might wonder why a Chinese-owned app used for making short video clips which is popular mainly among teens needs help managing its ties with Jerusalem. The reason might be that the company is currently contending with backlash pressure regarding both its global and local activities.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump threatened in the past to limit TikTok’s operations in that country over concerns over its ownership. U.S. President Biden has since backtracked on the move but in Israel too, following the recent wave of violence which occurred in mixed Jewish-Arab cities in April and May, there were calls on law enforcement agencies to find ways to prevent the dissemination of video clips showing violence.
In the weeks preceding those incidents, other video clips showing violent actions of Arabs against ultra-Orthodox Jews stoked tensions in Israel.
Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had even suggested freezing access to the platform, a suggestion that was rejected by legal officials.
This fact may underlie the hiring of local lobbyist Dafna Cohen.
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Shabi Gatenio, who runs the Association for Progressive Democracy, says that “lawmakers must give their immediate attention to the fact that in 2021, Israel has no transparency regarding the hiring of lobbying services. This involves basic transparency, such as exists in the lobbying laws of the United States, Canada, the European Union, Slovenia, Poland, Peru and other countries.”
Gatenio notes that “allowing the continuation of lobbying operations under a cloak of secrecy provided by the law is anti-democratic, harms public trust in decision making processes and in the value of equality in a democracy. If the new government is indeed a government of change, that’s where it should start,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the website for the lobbying firm Policy was taken down and was offline for a few hours.
Policy is implicated in an affair in which senior officials in two drug companies as well as former officials in food giant Tnuva are suspected of paying bribes to assistants of former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman in exchange for promoting these companies’ interests at the ministry.
Policy’s CEO Erez Gilhar is suspected of serving as the conduit. People in the lobbying industry suggested the website’s removal was connected in some manner to the investigation and to a wish to update the website in its wake.
If that was indeed the reason, Policy will now have to update the list of its customers, since in recent months it has lost several big clients, including Google Israel, the drug company Abbott, Keshet TV broadcasting, and Femi Premium, a company that provides subsidiary services to insurance companies and private health care services for public institutions, and whose name has been mentioned in relation to the affair.
The latter two companies severed their ties with Policy at the end of 2020, before media reports about the affair surfaced.
Another client which left Policy is the building contractors’ association Bonei Haaretz, which transferred its business to Republic, another lobbying firm. Ultimately, the Food Industries Association dropped out as well. Even though some of these companies withdrew from Policy’s list of customers many months ago, in some case this was not updated on the Knesset website’s list of lobbyists or in Policy’s list of clients.
For a company considered to be one of the dominant ones in the field, these withdrawals were a significant blow. When asked to comment, Policy said that the company does not discuss its clients in the media.