The Knesset is the perfect setting for a drama. It’s full of power, intrigue and ambition and Tomer Avital, in his 2013 book The Parliament, added murder to the mix.
Avital admitted his Hebrew murder mystery novel was written with an agenda, describing an extreme case of what can happen when there is a lack of transparency in the Knesset, particularly in regards to lobbyists.
Lobbyists have turned into bogeymen for some in the Knesset, always lurking around trying to pressure MKs to vote one way or another – depending on who’s paying the lobbyist that day. Others, however, think MKs need to take responsibility for their own actions and that too much blame is placed on lobbyists.
“This book is sort of a manifest calling to increase transparency, which will automatically solve a lot of problems,” Avital said. “Anonymous MKs, the back benchers that no one notices, are the easiest to buy off and tempt with their next job. I put a magnifying glass on them. They’re the Achilles heel of democracy.
“When I was [a Knesset correspondent] at Calcalist for almost four years, I saw how every decision is connected to money,” said Avital, who is now part of the investigative journalism program in Channel 2’s Uvda. “The best raw materials for a story are in the Knesset. There are so many ambitious people: Aides who want to get ahead, lobbyists who have to promote something and [backbencher] MKs wondering what their next job will be. The whole framework [of the story] is real.”
The author-journalist recounted working as an intern for MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) while he was a university student: “I was naïve about the Knesset then. She refuses to meet with any lobbyists.”
Still, Avital found in talks with lobbyists as part of research for the book that they still manage to influence MKs who won’t meet with them, like Yacimovich.
If a lobbyist wants to get to Yacimovich, he or she would meet with a top Labor activist who would pass on the message.
Yacimovich is one of the leading MKs in the fight against lobbyists. She worked with Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar to pass a law regulating their activities in 2008.
The law requires a lobbyist to get permission from a special committee, led by the Knesset Speaker, to be allowed to work in the Knesset and must reveal who he or she represents as well as whether he or she is a member of a party’s central committee.
Former MKs and ministers cannot be lobbyists within a year of their term ending, nor can Knesset or MK employees. In addition, lobbyists, who must wear name tags, cannot give MKs gifts or benefits, lie to MKs or threaten them or lead them to committing to voting a certain way.
Since then, in 2012, Uvda broadcast a hidden-camera video in which an employee of Gilad Lobbying recounted how he manipulated MKs and the Knesset Research and Information Center to a classroom full of lobbyists- in-training. Following the broadcast, then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin further limited lobbyists’ activities and lobbyists put out their own ethical code.
Since then, MKs have proposed various bills to continue to regulate lobbyists’ activities. Yacimovich and Yesh Atid’s Adi Kol sought to take away lobbyists’ permanent passes to enter the Knesset and label parties’ central committee members and lawyers representing a private company as lobbyists nearly a year ago.
The Lobbyists Forum, representing seven of the largest lobbying firms, supported the bill, as it would help stamp out “black-market lobbying.” The bill did not proceed after passing a preliminary vote.
Following former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s conviction on bribery charges earlier this month, Yacimovich and MK David Tsur (Hatnua) proposed what they called the Machers Bill, expanding the existing Lobbyists Law to government ministries, municipalities, state-owned companies and other public offices.
MK Stav Shaffir (Labor) has taken up the habit of demanding that lobbyists identify themselves in Knesset committee meetings, to mixed results.
Still, there is another side to the lobbying story. After the 2012 Uvda report and the restrictions that followed, lobbyist Behira Bardugo, who represented her colleagues, said “just because there are some former MKs in jail, does not mean that all MKs are corrupt. The same applies to lobbyists.”
She also expressed outrage at the claim that lobbyists only represent the wealthy, pointing out that many NGOs representing social causes hire lobbying services, and that one lobbyist can represent a corporation and a charity at the same time.
Boaz Rakocz, CEO of Transparency and civic participation NGO The Social Guard, said he saw both sides of the debate on the role of lobbyists.
“[The Social Guard] wants to map out all the interests in the Knesset, like how there are lobbyists representing four or five or more interests in committee meetings. The level of attention MKs give to lobbyists is disturbing,” he said.
On the other hand, Rakocz pointed out that since 2012, “the topic became very sensitive.
Lobbyists feel like there’s a witch hunt against them. Our official stance is not to hunt them down, but we still see cases in which a lobbyist whispers to an MK and that influences how decisions are made.”
Rakocz said one basic change that could increase transparency about the presence and role of lobbyists is to require them to sign in on attendance sheets in committee meetings, like other guests do.
“Some committees don’t even ask people with orange lanyards [indicating the person is a lobbyist] to sign up. It’s like there’s a gentleman’s agreement to make their lives easier. It’s absurd,” Rakocz said.
“My staff works with a variety of lobbyists,” Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked said. “It’s all in the open. It’s not like we meet with them secretly. They’re in the Knesset with permission and have a special name tag, so the assumption should be that they meet with all 120 MKs.”
Shaked added that as a member of the Knesset Economics Committee, lobbyists often seek to meet with her, but she chooses when to oblige or not based on whether the topic they want to discuss interests her and not based on who they represent.
On the other side of the political spectrum, MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said “lobbyists walking around the Knesset with an orange lanyard so everyone knows who they are bother me much less than the people we don’t know, aren’t official [lobbyists] and can have a much bigger influence, like lawyers, pressure groups and political activists.”
Someone who isn’t a certified lobbyist or even physically present in the Knesset can still put pressure on MKs by calling, sending messengers and other ways, Horowitz said.
“It’s part of the MKs’ responsibility to act in a serious way. Everyone needs to decide for himself or herself who to talk to and what about and how to avoid doing something wrong,” he said.