After years of operating without legal parameters, Knesset lobbyists will be regulated according to a bill that passed a unanimous first reading in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday.
Lobbyists will have to fill out forms declaring the interests they represent and wear name tags identifying their organizations while in the Knesset building, according to the bill. The bill also outlines a series of practices lobbyists are forbidden to employ - such as offering bribes or issuing threats - and demands that they adhere to an ethical code of conduct.
MKs Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) and Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) said that they had written the bill to create "greater transparency among lobbyists" who currently have no rules or restrictions governing their behavior in the parliament.
Sa'ar recalled how in Tuesday's Finance Committee vote on the health basket, the room was brimming with lobbyists who took up most of the chairs. The vote over which lifesaving drugs should be included in the health basket translated into millions of shekels for various pharmaceutical companies and health organizations - each of which wanted to have its influence on MKs.
"We currently have a situation in which the lobbying groups are unchecked," said Sa'ar, who also served as the Likud faction whip. "We see situations where the lobbyists push MKs into votes as if they were actual party whips."
There are no current figures for how many lobbyists currently operate in the Knesset, but Knesset officials estimate that there are several hundred representatives who rotate into the Knesset to "inform" MKs on various issues.
The history of lobbyists is unknown, although they exist in nearly every Western government. One story traces the etymology of the word to US President Ulysses S. Grant, who used the term to describe wheelers and dealers who frequented the Willard Hotel lobby in Washington, where Grant was known to enjoy his cigar and brandy.
Israel is one of the few countries that does not have any restrictions on lobbyists, although Sa'ar believes his bill will pass a final reading and go into effect before the winter session goes to recess.
Long-time lobbyist Lauren Puris said she welcomed Sa'ar's bill, since it would distinguish between various lobbying bodies.
"It will clarify that some of us are here representing human rights issues, while others are representing the [airport] duty-free shop," said Puris, who first began lobbying 20 years ago and currently works for the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. "It won't change anything I do in the Knesset, because I already adhere to all the standards they set forth."
Etti Duit, from the Gilad government relations and lobbying group, also said her lobbyists would continue working as usual. She added that her group welcomed the bill, since it would weed out groups that were less serious about their work.
Several lobbyists expressed hope that organizations employing individuals who used unscrupulous methods, such as functioning as a member of a political party while lobbying on behalf of specific business interests, would be thrown out of the Knesset.
"Everyone knows who these folks are, and hopefully kicking them out will give more credibility to those of us who do our work the ethical but hard way," said one lobbyist.
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