Lessons of the Yisrael Beiteinu Corruption Scandal: Lobbyists Need Regulation

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A lobbyist in the Knesset dairy cafeteria.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Yisrael Beiteinu corruption scandal, in which three lobbyists were among those arrested, ought to set off alarm bells not just because of the allegations of illegal transfers of funds and the distribution of jobs to those close to the party, but because of the way lobbyists conduct themselves in the Knesset corridors.

The Lobbyists Law, passed in 2008 at the initiative of MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and former MK Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), requires lobbyists to register with the Knesset, wear ID tags and make public whom they represent. But it hasn’t managed to put enough space between the lobbyists and the MKs.

The 19th Knesset, which opened with grand declarations of new, clean politics, has been very disappointing in terms of the lobbyists’ activity in the Knesset building.

The first bill submitted during this Knesset’s term, by MK Adi Kol (Yesh Atid), was supposed to regulate the work of lobbyists. The bill passed in preliminary reading, but was buried in committee. The Lobbyists Forum, which was involved in formulating the recommendations, even announced that they supported some of the changes, but didn’t make any particular effort to get the bill passed after it was buried.

Kol’s bill was based on recommendations made by a committee headed by retired law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, the vice president of research at the the Israel Democracy Institute, which two years ago was asked to draw up a code of ethics after the “Uvda” newsmagazine program filmed lobbyists boasting about advancing legislation for their clients.

The bill stated that lobbying activity in Israel must be transparent to the public, require lobbyists to announce their fields of interest and broaden the definition of “lobbying” to include the lobbying of government ministers, ministerial officials and more.

It turned out that MKs didn’t want to set limits on their relationships with lobbyists and refused to approve the recommendations, while also rejecting the demand that they reveal when they meet with lobbyists or set a cooling-off period for former MKs so that they couldn’t immediately cross over and become lobbyists.

MK Stav Shaffir (Labor) requested several times during Knesset Finance Committee meetings that the lobbyists in the room identify themselves and their clients, but she never received a response.

Moreover, the outgoing Knesset has refused to advance legislation that would forbid “black lobbying,” the term used for lobbying activity in the Knesset by unauthorized persons, even though party activists not registered as lobbyists often enter the Knesset building to persuade MKs to support or reject parliamentary initiatives.

Black lobbying might be minimized if it became a criminal offense. But it seems that some MKs don’t want to confront the political activists and “vote contractors” whom they may need when the party primaries roll around.

Even the lobbying regulations that do exist apply only to meetings in the Knesset building, not to MKs meeting outside it. Nor does the law say anything about lobbyists contacting government ministers or senior state officials outside the building. When Ram Belinkov was the treasury budget director, he forbade his employees to meet with lobbyists, but the ban has been dropped since his 2009 resignation and lobbyists wander freely among Finance Ministry offices.

No MK from any party can declare his hands are clean and criticize those allegedly involved in this latest corruption case. With the opening of the 20th Knesset, the newly elected legislators must pass a law that will make lobbyists’ work more transparent and the rules governing their behavior more strict. Perhaps this will prevent future arrests of lobbyists on suspicion of involvement in illegal fund transfers.

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