Bring the lobbyists to order

The recent conduct of gas lobbyists has brought to light full ugliness that can exist between interest groups and Knesset members.

The issue of the royalties due to the State of Israel from the massive gas fields discovered off the coast, and the question of whether retroactive legislation is legitimate, will be settled, as will the debate about whether the money should be earmarked for current budgets (defense, education, national debt, etc.) or placed in an investment fund that will serve future generations.
However, there is one issue which, while not directly connected to the gas issue, has emerged in its full ugliness in connection with the exploration and production companies: the conduct of the gas lobbyists.
Lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity in any democratic system. Individuals and interest groups have the right to try to convince policy makers, both in the executive and the legislature, to take their interests and concerns into account.
Lobbyists operate in democratic parliaments the world over. Lobbying has reached its most sophisticated form in the US Congress, and it’s estimated that there are more than 15,000 (!) lobbyists operating round the European Union in Brussels and Strasbourg.
However, the right to lobby must be regulated or there is a danger of misconduct and even corruption.
In the US, the rules for lobbyists in Congress were tightened several years ago following the Abramoff affair. Jack Abramoff, a professional lobbyist, was convicted in 2006 of bribing persons in the administration and in Congress.
IN CONGRESS, as in the European Parliament and the Knesset, all lobbyists are obliged to register, and when in the legislature wear a badge indicating their identity and affiliation. The Code of Conduct places strict limitations on what is allowed and what is forbidden in relations between congressmen and lobbyists, and there are rules regarding what is known as the “revolving door,” requiring a cooling-off period before ex-congressmen can become lobbyists.
In the Knesset, new rules of ethics currently up for approval by the House Committee also place strict limits on what is allowed in relations between Knesset Members and lobbyists.
This is designed to prevent lobbyists “buying” MKs, or placing undue pressure on their voting. There is no doubt that once the new rules are adopted, the range of lobbying activities in the Knesset will be greatly restricted. However, this is not enough. Several years ago, when I prepared a comparative study on the operation of lobbyists around the world in preparation for the addition of Chapter 12 to the Knesset Law, which deals with lobbyists, one of the veteran lobbyists asked me with a smile: “In other parliaments, are lobbyists allowed to sit around committee tables, as we are in the Knesset?”
My answer was that not only are lobbyists not allowed to sit around the table, they are not allowed into the committee rooms.
The problem here is that lobbyists are invited to sit around committee tables by the committee chairmen themselves, not only when the committee wishes to hear what they have to say, but whenever an issue of concern to those who employ them is up for deliberation. This can result in a situation like that which occurred several weeks ago in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, where there were more gas industry lobbyists present than MKs. Yitzhak Tshuva, who holds a controlling stake in the Delek group, which has invested heavily in gas exploration, was also present and no doubt had an intimidating effect on the participating MKs.
There is no doubt that the presence of lobbyists in committee rooms should be restricted. It is also desirable that lobbyists abide by a code of conduct, such as the voluntary code that exists in the EU. Though lobbyists have not necessarily been engaged – visibly – in bad-mouthing Prof. Eytan Sheshinski (who headed the committee that dealt with the gas and petroleum royalties) and all those supporting its conclusions, other gas company messengers were.
This should not be allowed in a well-ordered democracy.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.