Latest Knesset Clash: Are Ethics Overrated?

Three senior members of a public committee that drafted an ethics code for the Knesset say they will boycott all future House Committee meetings convened to authorize such a code.

The boycotters oppose the Knesset's decision to reject their committee's recommendation that an ethics adviser be appointed to the Knesset. They also cite a "disdainful attitude toward the members of the committee," known as the Zamir Committee.

The boycotters - retired Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir and professors Assa Kasher and Suzie Navot - sent a letter to the other members of the Zamir Committee and to MK David Tal (Kadima), who heads a separate committee reviewing the Zamir Committee's recommendations. The boycotters said that "in light of the discussions and resolutions, the prospects of any real change in the ethical approach of Knesset members are nil."

In August 2003, then-speaker Reuven Rivlin appointed the Zamir Committee to draft an ethics code for the Knesset. At the time, Rivlin explained that a "significant portion of the public regards us as a gang of sinners. We must therefore put our house in order."

The Zamir Committee worked for more than four years on the draft of such a code and, on January 14, 2007, submitted its report. A special Knesset committee whose sessions were attended by representatives of the Zamir Committee has discussed the recommendations for the past year and a half.

The crux of the dispute is the Zamir Committee's recommendation that an ethics adviser be appointed to handle all complaints submitted to the Knesset's Ethics Committee.

The adviser would counsel MKs on ethical issues and increase their general awareness on the subject. The Knesset would thus follow the example of legislatures in other countries that have in recent years appointed an ethics commissioner with sweeping powers.

When the Knesset House Committee discussed the subject of an ethics adviser last January 29, only two MKs were present. After a discussion that lasted just one minute, it was decided that an ethics adviser would not be appointed. After Zamir threatened to stop coming to House Committee sessions, Tal, who chairs this committee, held an additional meeting on July 15. That meeting confirmed the previous decision not to appoint an ethics adviser.

In their letter, Zamir, Kasher and Navot also write that "the Knesset House Committee displays a disdainful attitude toward our committee. We don't wish to appear as accomplices ... and have thus decided not to participate in any future sessions."

In an interview with Haaretz yesterday, Zamir said that "the committee's recommendations have been tossed in the wastepaper basket. We are not prepared to be accomplices to such behavior. If the MKs are content to continue with the present situation, then the Knesset should just do whatever it feels like doing; we will not be part of all this."

Zamir added that the appointment of an ethics adviser could change both the atmosphere in the Knesset and the public's attitude toward the legislature.

Responding to the statements by the three members of the Zamir Committee, Tal said: "We adopted most of the committee's recommendations but we were opposed to the appointment of an ethics adviser."

According to Tal, the House Committee will continue to prepare a Knesset ethics code even if the members of the Zamir Committee boycott its sessions. "If we are the ones who are going to implement all their recommendations, then there was no need for creating my committee," he said.