Calling the Knesset lobbyists to order

Many MKs seem to have assumed the role of the lobbyists’ lobbyists.

Knesset building 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset building 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
In 2007, soon after the Zamir Committee on the preparation of new rules of ethics for Knesset Members submitted its report, which included a chapter on the relations between Knesset Members and lobbyists, and while the Knesset was deliberating on an amendment to the Knesset Law regarding the presence of lobbyists in the Knesset building, one of the veteran lobbyists asked me whether in other parliaments lobbyists are also allowed to sit around the table at committee meetings, as they are in the Knesset.
“No,” I answered, “not only do they not sit around the table, but they do not have free access to the committees as you guys have here, and can participate in meetings only if invited by the chairman.”
This conversation is indicative of the specific problem that the professional lobbyists pose for the Knesset – the fact that for too many years, the lobbyists were allowed to operate in the Knesset building as if it were their backyard.
It is no secret that many of the thousands of Private Members’ Bills submitted each Knesset term originate in the offices of lobbyists, who also exert great pressure on MKs to vote in a manner favorable to their clients. In Israel, the phenomenon is frequently accompanied by intolerable cockiness, as we could see in Ilana Dayan’s recent report on the lobbyists in the Knesset, in her program Uvda on Channel 2. Among other things, one of the lobbyists was recorded bragging that he “feeds” the Knesset Research and Information Center with information that is then presented in RIC documents as is – a libelous claim, since it unjustifiably questioned the objectivity of RIC documents.
The phenomenon of professional lobbyists is, of course, not unique to Israel. In the US Congress the phenomenon of lobbyists was known as early as the end of the 18th century, and already then one could distinguish between its positive and negative aspects.
It should be noted that lobbying – both professional and non-professional – is a legitimate activity in every democracy. Every citizen and organization has the right to try to convince members of both the executive branch and the legislative branch to pass laws and act in a manner that will serve his or its interests. Of course, there must be constraints on this activity. It must be clean of corruption, it must not be based on undue pressure and must be totally transparent.
Another problem is that the professional lobbyists – i.e. lobbyists who represent commercial and other interests for a fee – favor the wealthy and influential over the silent majority. A tycoon can afford to employ half a dozen or more well-trained professional lobbyists in the Knesset, a luxury the rest of us cannot afford.
In Israel actual corruption in lobbying, especially involving bribes in the form of cash (rather than perks), is apparently non-existent. In the US, back in 2006 a massive case of bribes paid by a lobbyist, both to members of the administration and congressmen, ended in the imprisonment of Jewish lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the introduction of much stricter rules regarding the registration of lobbyists operating in Congress, the relations between congressmen and lobbyists, and the phenomenon of “the revolving door” (congressmen-turned- lobbyists, lobbyists-turned-congressional staff, etc.). In the European Parliament last year there was also a scandal involving Austrian, Romanian, Slovenian and Spanish Members who had been paid by lobbyists to get certain legislation through.
The problem in Israel has much more to do with the cockiness and aggressive approach of many lobbyists, who seem to regard MKs as marionettes they can manipulate at will. The tragedy of the matter is that there are MKs who do not seem to mind this role, especially if acting in accordance with the instructions of the lobbyists will win them a headline in the media.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who during his first term as Speaker in the 16th Knesset initiated the legislation regarding lobbyists, is now determined to further toughen the rules. Among other things he has limited the areas in the Knesset building where lobbyists can move freely, removing the Members’ Restaurant, and the offices of the Knesset committees, the speaker, the director-general, the secretary-general, the legal department and the RIC from their lebensraum.
He also plans to limit the number of lobbyists that each lobbying firm can send to a committee meeting, to have lobbyists leave the committee rooms during voting, to apply the rules regarding transparency more strictly, and to get the Knesset to finally adopt the rules proposed by the Zamir Committee back in 2006.
Unfortunately it is not clear whether the MKs will actually cooperate with Rivlin. Many MKs seem to have assumed the role of the lobbyists’ lobbyists.
The writer carried out comparative research for the Zamir Committee on New Rules of Ethics for Knesset Members in the years 2003 to 2006.