The People Who Raise the Knesset Members' Hands

Lobbyists influence the vote on laws that affect all our pockets, all too often not in the public's favor.

Nochi Dankner's pocket is deeply affected by decisions made in the Knesset. So are the fortunes of Shari Arison, Muzi Wertheim, Yossi Maiman and Israel's other business tycoons. But instead of haunting the Knesset corridors themselves, they have lobbyists doing the job for them in exchange for sums that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

The lobbyists get friendly with the Knesset members and have a knack for persuading the elected representatives to see their clients' perspectives. Their purpose is to torpedo legislative initiatives that would be bad for their clients' business and alternatively, to promote laws that would play in their favor.

A businessman who can afford to hire their services gains a considerable edge in the House, but the one who stands to lose is the public. How can the public know what affected the decisions reached in parliament? The matter is all the keener when the issues at stake are competition.

"The lobbyists live in the Knesset," remarked Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich recently, complaining about their clout in the House. "They unlock its doors in the morning and close it down at night. They go through the Knesset members' chambers like they were on a production line," she added, as lobbyists urged sluggish Knesset members to go vote on an issue dear to their clients' hearts.

"There are lobbyists who catch us on the stairs and push their proposals," said Colette Avital of Labor. David Tal of Kadima, House committee chairman, says that he saw a lobbyist physically drag down the hand of a Knesset member who meant to vote in favor of a certain proposal.

It isn't only Knesset members who find the lobbyists' ceaseless pursuit irritating and worse, leading Yachimovich and Gideon Sa'ar to enact a law regulating their activity. The law, which came into force today, improves transparency. The lobbyists have to wear white and orange badges with their names, and to disclose to the MKs with whom they speak, whose interests they represent. A lobbyist who fails to comply with the rules will be barred from the House.

The law also applies to professionals such as lawyers and strategic consultants who drop by the Knesset to push an agenda on somebody else's behalf.

The lobbying offices tried to block exposure of their client lists, yet from tonight, those very lists should be appearing on the Knesset Web site. Parts of the list, which TheMarker has obtained, appear here, revealing who represents exactly whose interests in the chamber.

No less than 64 lobbyists asked for Knesset credentials, giving them the right to ply the Knesset's corridors under the new law. They were hired by about 200 companies and organizations. Based on the lists delivered to the Knesset, the three biggest lobbying companies (from the perspective of number of clients) are Gilad Government Relations & Lobbying with 64 clients, belonging to Amir Gilad; Boris Krasny's company Policy with 61 clients, and Goren-Amir with 46 clients. Some note that they have more clients but they don't represent these clients' interests in Knesset.

The list also shows that the biggest businessmen don't place all their eggs in one basket. Muzi Wertheim hired Aliza Goren, Tomer Amir and Krasny to represent the Central Bottling Company (Coca-Cola Israel). Goren-Amir also represents Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, in which Wertheim owns 20%.

Keshet, the Channel 2 broadcast company in which Wertheim owns 51%, hired two lobbying companies, Impact and Policy.

The lobbyists' job for Keshet (and Reshet) is to persuade the parliamentarians to lower the royalties the broadcasters have to pay the state, and to ease their content burdens.

Yossi Maiman, who owns Channel 10, hired Gilad Government Relations & Lobbying. Channel 10 hasn't complied with its commitments and the lobbyists are trying to shave back its obligations even more, which would lower the broadcaster's costs. And the quality of content. Maiman also owns 20.6% of the Egyptian-Israeli energy company EMG: It hired another lobbying company, Cohen-Rimon-Cohen.

Tnuva also has two lobbying companies sweating on its behalf: Goren-Amir handles dairy issues and Policy handles its meat and eggs.

Lev Leviev, the real estate baron who decamped to London, hired Krasny to handle his Channel 9 (Russian-language television) issues. Leviev wants Channel 9 to be available to all, for free, like channels 1, 2 and 10. That would increase Channel 9's exposure and could help it increase ad revenues at the expense of Channel 2. Meanwhile, Krasny also represents Channel 2 franchisees Keshet and Reshet, which really do not want Channel 9 to be freely available.

Shari Arison, owner of Bank Hapoalim, works with Krasny. Eliezer Fishman, who owns interests in Globes and Yedioth Ahronoth, works with Goren-Amir. Haaretz, Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth work with Goren-Amir too.

Lobbyists are involved in almost everything that breathes and twitches in the House. Three years ago, when Benjamin Netanyahu submitted his proposal to sever provident, study and mutual funds from the banks, the lobbyists hired by the banks brought in the bankers themselves: Shlomo Nehama and Zvi Ziv of Hapoalim, Galia Maor and Eitan Raff of Leumi, Eli Yones from Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, and Dov Kotler from Union Bank, among others. The bankers and lobbyists didn't manage to scuttle the reform, but they did weaken it.

Each bank has its team of lobbyists representing it in the Knesset.

For the battle over service fees this year, the banks hired even more lobbyists to clarify to the parliamentarians just how badly the banks' income would be diminished by reduced fees.

The law curbing the number of service fees banks may charge did leave the dock nonetheless. But it quickly became apparent that the banks had found ways to alleviate their pain - they raised the fees that remained. Then came another initiative to slap a cap on bank fees, which the lobbyists are now trying to defang. One initiative by Amnon Cohen of Shas wouldn't let the banks charge more than NIS 1.50 for basic transactions. It is now under fire.

A lot of other reforms designed to expand competition and lower prices for consumers are stuck at the Knesset Finance Committee, thanks to lobbyists. One is a proposal to open bus lines plied by Egged and Dan to rival companies.

A House Committee debate on the public television channels - 1, 2, 10, 33 and 99 - was so clogged by lobbyists from six different companies that there wasn't enough room for the committee members, prompting panel chairman David Tal to bellow into the crowded room, "Make way for the Knesset members." The lobbyists had been hired by Yes, HOT, Reshet, Keshet, Channel 9, the Music Channel (24) and Educational TV (23).

Another reform in limbo is to restructure the Israel Electric Corporation, allowing private-sector companies to produce electricity. The IEC was supposed to adopt a new structure on July 1, but lobbyists managed to persuade the ministries and MKs that the electricity sector wasn't ready for the change. Who's paying the lobbyists for their efforts against change at the IEC? The IEC. Or rather, you, through higher electricity bills.