Lessons from the Yisrael Beytenu Affair
Regulation, transparency and enforcement capabilities are crucial steps for lobbying to work.
Indictments were recently issued against a number of people involved in the “Yisrael Beytenu affair.”
These indictments include serious allegations, foremost among them bribery. The charges outline a picture of systematic corruption involving former deputy interior minister Faina Kirschenbaum, who had transferred funds to several institutions in return for favors. This scandal highlights multiple failures related to the regulation of state fund disbursements to various bodies, with one of the most salient structural deficiencies being the limited regulation of lobbying
One of the accused in the affair is Steven Levy, a lobbyist who has represented, among others, the Ayalim NGO, and who, according to the indictment, brokered illegal deals between Kirschenbaum and this organization.
Levy, like the other indicted parties, of course has the right to the presumption of innocence. And even if he is convicted, it should be emphasized that lobbying is legal in Israel, and the vast majority of lobbyists carry out their work within the framework of the law.
However, it is difficult to argue that this work does not come with a major occupational hazard: the potential for corruption. The purpose of lobbyist is to influence the work of government. Inevitably, such a job carries the risk that inappropriate methods may be used.
Israel, similar to other democracies, regulates the activities of lobbyists. Yet this indictment shows, not for the first time, that the existing regulatory regime is insufficient. In particular, the charges point to three main failures.
First, the definition of “lobbying” is too narrow.
The Knesset Law that governs lobbying relates almost exclusively to activities that take place inside the Knesset building, with MKs and employees. In contrast, lobbying that takes place outside the physical confines of the Knesset or that targets employees of the executive branch, such as senior officials in government ministries, is neither regulated nor covered by any legislation.
In this context, though Levy was registered as a Knesset lobbyist, in practice he conducted most of his work outside the Knesset, including holding meetings in cafés. The existing law doesn’t cover this kind of lobbying activity, nor does the current legislation make it possible to restrict such conduct.
Second, there is insufficient transparency. While lobbyists are required to report the names of the organizations they represent, they do not have to provide information about the specific issues and interests they promote. Moreover, lobbyists are not obligated to reveal the identity of the decision makers they target.
Accordingly, even if Levy had reported that he was representing Ayalim, the speaker of the Knesset, law enforcement authorities and general public still would have been kept in the dark about the nature of his activity, as well as the identity of those decision makers his activities were directed at.
Finally, there are insufficient resources for regulation and enforcement. There is no dedicated or professional body that oversees the work of lobbyists. Instead, this is done by a committee that includes the speaker of the Knesset and two of his deputies – not a body that can be expected to devote the required time and resources to the issue. The existing law does not confer investigative authority on this committee, and only a mild sanctions can be imposed on lobbyists who break the rules, such as revoking their entry permit to the Knesset building.
In order to rectify these and other failures, several steps should be taken: regulation should be extended to cover lobbying conducted outside the Knesset building and directed at senior officials in government ministries and local government; lobbyists should be required to submit periodic reports in which they detail the interests they have promoted, and to whom; and enforcement capabilities should be enhanced, among other means by appointing someone who will be responsible for this issue and have the authority to investigate lobbyists, as well as by imposing harsher punishments on lobbyists who break the law.
Crime thrives wherever there is a lack of transparency, regulation and appropriate norms. Human nature is such that even if the overwhelming majority of lobbyists are honest and professional, in certain circumstances they and elected officials may end up crossing the thin line between legal and illegal conduct. It is therefore important to regulate lobbyists via an authorized body that has real teeth, and that can identify inappropriate activities, such as those uncovered in the Yisrael Beytenu affair.
Better still, such an agency would be able to prevent such unlawful conduct from being carried out in the first place.
The writer is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.