Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to give a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel February 14, 2018.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
When President Reuven Rivlin spoke at the opening of the Knesset session in October 2017, he spoke of the lack of statesmanship in Israeli politics.
Statesmanship or lack thereof has been in the background of a long list of scandals and incidents that have rocked Israeli politics in recent years, including too many cases of unethical or inappropriate behavior by Knesset members. Sadly, even such cases do not unify party leaders.
Time and again, when public officials breach what is considered “appropriate” behavior, the reactions focus on the superfluous rather than on the matter itself.
After the incident in which Joint List MKs waved signs of protest during US Vice President Mike Pence’s speech to the Knesset plenum, calls were made for them to be punished severely and to extend the powers of the Knesset Ethics Committee so they could punish MKs who interrupt the speech of a foreign dignitary, enabling it not only to suspend the offender from plenary and committee discussions for six months, but also to withhold their pay during the period of suspension.
This proposal is entirely superfluous, as the Ethics Committee already has the power to suspend an MK for six months for similar offenses, and even to withhold pay for two weeks.
However, even when MK Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beytenu) poured a glass of water over MK Raleb Majadele (Labor) in 2012 at a Knesset committee meeting – a case of actual violence – she was suspended from the Knesset plenum and committee meetings for just one month. Clearly, there is no need for the Ethics Committee to be awarded additional powers of punishment if it does not make full use of those it already has.
But what is most regrettable is that the Knesset time and again is exercising itself over trifles. If we truly wish to improve the behavior and image of MKs, we need to institute a new Knesset code of ethics. The existing code for MKs is outdated and confused, and ignores a number of critical issues. In the previous decade, there was actually some serious and comprehensive work carried out on formulating a new code of ethics: between 2003 and 2006, at the instigation of then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, a public committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Zamir was charged with preparing new rules of ethics for MKs. Subsequently, a Knesset subcommittee, active between 2009 until 2011, was appointed to formulate and approve a new code of ethics for MKs.
Both committees proposed new rules of ethics regarding substantial issues. A prominent example concerns relations between MKs and lobbyists: currently there are no restrictions on MKs (other than the general rules against accepting gifts and benefits) – all the restrictions in place apply solely to lobbyists.
The Zamir Committee’s recommendations sought to change this by, among other things, requiring MKs who speak at a Knesset committee on a particular issue to disclose whether they have been approached by lobbyists on this issue, and also by forbidding MKs to make any commitment to lobbyists that they will act in a certain way.
The proposed code also addressed many other issues, including conflicts of interest, the disclosure of MKs’ assets and other positions held, absences from plenum sessions, strengthening the Ethics Committee and even appointing a professional ethics counsel to the Knesset. All of these issues have far more of an impact on the work of MKs and public trust in them than does the waving of signs in the plenum.
However, these codes met with a great deal of opposition from MKs, who prefer not to burden themselves with additional restrictions, and so they have not been implemented.
At a time when public trust in the Knesset and its members is at an all-time low, it would seem vital to address these important issues before anything else. It would be far better for MKs to work hard at introducing a new and improved code of ethics than to seek to advance empty legislation that has no purpose other than to make headlines.
Dr. Assaf Shapira and Dr. Chen Friedberg are researchers at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Governance and the Economy.