Knesset C'tee Vows to Tackle the Tycoons

Twisted market economics, the worst evil?

The Knesset Finance Committee yesterday debated the domination by big business of the Israeli and resolved that if the cabinet fails to launch an inquiry into the matter the Knesset will take matters into its own hands. However, only eight of the committee's 18 members bothered to attend the session.

Moshe Gafni: I’m not normal, so I’m not afraid of the tycoons.
Emil Salman

The eight who did show up were MKs Haim Oron of Meretz, who proposed the debate; committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ), Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ), Amnon Cohen and Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas and Majali Wahabi, Shai Hermesh and Eli Aflalo of Kadima.

Of the 10 no-shows, Fania Kirshenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu is known to be abroad. Others were in important meetings and couldn't attend, according to Knesset sources. The State Control Committee was discussing the Gaza-bound flotilla to Gaza.

The Knesset House Committee was debating whether or not to deny benefits to the MKs who went to Libya. The Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee was deliberating on state financing for children's dental care through the health maintenance organizations.

It's possible, however, that some of the MKs who skipped the Finance Committee debate simply did not want to fall foul of business powers.

The nine no-shows who were not known to be out of the country were MKs Haim Katz (Likud ), who was chairing the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee session; Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi ), who was attending the House Committee discussion; Uri Ariel (National Union ), Daniel Ben Simon (Labor ), Alex Miller (Yisrael Beiteinu ), Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ), Ronit Tirosh (Kadima ) and Zion Fanian and Miri Regev of Likud.

"The concentration of economic power poses a threat to Israeli democracy," MK Shelly Yachimovich said at the session. "It is a monarchy of the rich." Competition is dead, she said: A small clique of families controls many aspects of Israelis' lives.

After the discussion Gafni said he accepted Oron's proposal, that the Finance Committee motion the government to order an inquiry into the issue. If it fails to do so, Gafni said, the committee will take action.

Gafni: I'm not afraid

At the start of the discussion Gafni spoke of the dangers inherent in the sheer power accrued by the tycoons and families that control the economy. The problem is growing, he said: "The media and the banks are involved, too, which is rather frightening. I am afraid that MKs will be afraid of the tycoons. If I were a normal MK I'd start to be scared. But I'm not afraid because I'm not a normal Knesset member," Gafni said.

Gafni related that a wealthy businessman had approached him with an offer to buy Yated Ne'eman, the privately owned newspaper affiliated with Gafni's party, Degel Hatorah. The owners refused, he noted.

"The small clique of controlling families has more power than the cabinet and the Knesset members," Yachimovich said. "That power is not subject to public scrutiny. The oligarchs of the capital market do not run in party primaries. They perpetuate their power over generations, leaving it to their heirs."

No investigation of these families has ever been broadcast on television, continued Yachimovich. They own the broadcast companies, she added. Criticism of the oligarchs is not made public. "You won't hear criticism of the big advertisers. It doesn't pay to mess with them," she said, adding that there will never be an inquiry into the owners of television channels who happen to own other businesses. "This is nothing less than a danger to democracy," she declared.

Abuse of debate

Yachimovich also said that she feels that the public debate on the problem of overly concentrated economic power is being abused.

"I've been told not to get involved in little things like executive pay and administrative enforcement by the Israel Securities Authority, to focus only on the broader issue of concentration of power," she said. Telling her to ignore the concrete in favor of the abstract is an obvious ploy to avoid tackling the true burning issues of the day, Yachimovich said.

"Since 50% of all non-bank credit is given to just nine companies, we aren't just talking about a danger to economic stability but about a danger to the very stability of democracy," Yachimovich said.

Oron said that the government was deliberately ignoring the issue of dubious ties between business and government. He warned that some business groups were becoming too big to be allowed to fall, which would pose a clear danger to the economic system as a whole. What could be a worse model than twisted market economics?, Oron asked.