One cannot help wondering whether the embarrassing e pisode of MK Binyamin (Fuad) Ben- Eliezer might have been avoided if the rules of ethics for MKs were different to what they are today on the issue of the registration and publication of financial disclosures.
Today MKs must submit to the Knesset Speaker a detailed statement regarding their financial interests within 60 days of being elected, and must update their report whenever a substantial change has occurred in these interests. The statement must detail the capital, assets, equity, commitments and debts owned by the MK and his immediate family, as well as any additional sources of income which they might have.
This is certainly an impressive list of information, which is much more extensive than what British MPs are required to submit, though less extensive than what US Congressman are required to submit. There is just one problem: while in the UK and the US the law requires the reports to be made available to the public, in Israel the statement is placed in a closed envelope which is subsequently placed in a locked safe, without checking what the envelop contains, and whether the statement was filled in properly.
Only if criminal charges are pressed against the MK against a financial background can the statement be retrieved and opened. Thus, it will be interesting to find out what is in his envelope if charges are pressed against Ben-Eliezer. Theoretically the envelope could be empty, or it could contain a poem by Haim Nahman Bialik, a partial or out-of-date report, or a full and comprehensive one. My guess is that it will be the third option, but one cannot tell.
The objection among our politicians to publicly, or even semi-publicly revealing their financial interests is so strong that even the Zamir Committee, which prepared a proposal for new rules of ethics for MKs during the years 2003-2006, and made some revolutionary suggestions for improving the rules (none of which were adopted so far, eight years after the proposals were submitted) didn’t suggest that the reports be published, but merely that the envelopes be opened before being buried in the safe to make sure that they are not empty, and that the forms were properly filled.
Since the Zamir Report was published and pigeonholed, several bills have been submitted by MKs in order to make the publication of the statements mandatory.
The most persistent among these MKs is Shelly Yacimovich, who first submitted her bill in 2008, and most recently submitted it at the end of 2013, only to have it rejected again and again. The most recent version of the bill (available on the Knesset website) last came up for preliminary reading in the plenum on January 22, 2014, and, as expected, was removed from the Knesset’s agenda in a vote in which 32 MKs voted against sending the bill to committee and 19 voted in favor.
The “arguments” made to oust the bill were an insult to intelligence. For example, MK Yariv Levin (the leader of the coalition in the Knesset) said that he personally would have voted in favor if the law were also applied to district court judges, while Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who was sent to present the government’s position in place of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, simply stated that while the bill was worthy, since the bill had been raised in the Knesset before being deliberated by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation (he didn’t explain why that had happened) the government must automatically reject it.
Why are the financial statements so important? For two main reasons. The first is that it is important that those responsible for MKs’ ethics, law enforcement authorities and the public at large should have the means to detect whether MKs are in a situation of conflict of interest. The second is that only if such reports are published at regular intervals is it possible to detect whether our elected representatives have amassed money and assets during their terms of office, beyond anything that can be explained on the basis of their Knesset salaries (they are not allowed to hold any other jobs or stock market shares while they are MKs) and their spouses’ legitimate and legal earnings.
The question is what can be done to ensure that the next time that indefatigable Yacimovich submits her bill it receives more serious treatment. Experience demonstrates that parliamentary codes of ethics have the best chance of being adopted and/or fortified after some major confidence crisis in the field of ethics.
This has been true in the British case where a hefty system of dealing with ethical problems was installed in 1995 after a Conservative MP was caught accepting payment for asking ministers questions, and was then further strengthened as a result of the 2009 expenses scandal, in which it was revealed that MPs had submitted requests for expenses returns for some pretty dodgy items, which they had actually received.
The Zamir Committee was set up in the aftermath of the double voting scandal of 2003, when two Likud MKs were caught abusing the electronic voting system to vote twice during a nightly vote on the annual budget. The fact that three candidates for the presidency – one of them also a minister – were forced out of the race is a good reason to “strike while the iron is hot.”
What would this involve? First of all the MKs who in favor of amending the law should increase the pressure on the opponents and cynics, with the active support of the written and electronic media (it would be helpful if the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom joined in).
Secondly, I think it is time to return to one of the ideas that was raised by the Zamir Committee, and which was finally rejected On July 1, 2010, in a subcommittee of the Knesset House Committee, which spent several months in the course of the 18th Knesset going over the Zamir Committee’s recommendation: appoint a part time ethics adviser to the Knesset, one of whose jobs would be to ensure that MKs are familiar with the current rules of ethics (which even today are substantial, though rather patchy).
Having attended most of the meetings of the Knesset House Committee on the Zamir Committee proposals in the course of the 17th and 18th Knesset, I can verify that even among the MKs who attended there was surprising ignorance as to what the current rules actually are.
I do not know whether Ben-Eliezer would have managed to avoid the pitfall he fell into had he been properly instructed in the rules, but I am certain that no one ever sat and explained their content and importance to him.
Though the two legal advisers who are in charge of dealing with issues of ethics in the Knesset are knowledgeable and worthy, their legal obligations fill most of their time, and they have little spare time to deal with educating MKS on ethics.
Furthermore, the Zamir Committee rightly pointed out that the adviser should be an expert on ethics rather than law. Though law and ethics are not parallel lines that never meet, they are two separate academic disciplines (the study of ethics is part of philosophy or religious studies).
For the attention of those MKs who plan to try to bring about reform in the Knesset ethics system – please take a renewed look at the idea of an adviser on ethics. In the deliberations during the 18th Knesset in the House Committee mentioned above, the chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) was the only MK to support the idea, besides Prof. Yitzhak Zamir, who was invited to defend his committee’s proposal.
The writer is a retired Knesset Employee, and served as research assistant to the Zamir Committee.
Due to an error the writer’s article last week was not published in full in the printed edition, but may be viewed in the digital edition.