Post-Election Political Dealings

Covert lobbyist activity in the Knesset corridors: undermining or realizing the democratic foundations?

This last year, during which Israel experienced two consecutive election campaigns, abounded with swift political dealings, including, on the one hand, agreements that formed associations and alliances between political parties and people, and on the other, arguments and clashes between various values and ideologies on issues of legislation and integrity. As of now, most efforts will focus on establishing the future government and determining a public agenda for the good of all citizens. Indeed, this process too will probably be accompanied by political dealings involving give and take between the party heads and within the parties, until agreements that will facilitate a ruling coalition are reached.

However, although this process of conducting political transactions does not generally appeal to the public nor elicit much sympathy, it is a usual process in democratic regimes. The expectation and hope is that a government will eventually be formed that will promote public policy reflecting normative values for the public good, values not biased by personal, political, or sectorial considerations.

Nonetheless, in some cases of democratic rule, public policy is used as a tool for advancing the political interests of the elected officials, and thus forsakes its original purpose. This type of policy is called positivist policy, whereby public policy has goals that are influenced by stakeholder interests, power, and strength. Such policy depends on particular interests. It focuses on and makes do with justifying and explaining the current state of affairs in light of the personal interests of policy makers, and therefore does not examine policy in light of the ethical and objective parameters of society at large.

Accordingly, in recent years lobbying has become a prevalent practice, one that enables private and business entities to influence decision making processes and public policy “under the radar.” Side by side with its contribution to important democratic principles such as representing public interests and political participation, lobbying is also the target of strong criticism that may even argue that it is a real danger to democracy.

In recent years, we have been witnessing stepped up lobbyist activity in Israel’s Knesset. Lobbyists have been increasing their efforts to pressure elected officials and to provide them with tendentious information,  aiming to inject bias into the deliberations of the latter such that they will act in favor of various interest groups at the cost of public interests.

Lobbyist activity in Israel takes place in three main spheres: First – participation in Knesset meetings, whether at the initiative of the lobbies or of the committees themselves; second – activity in the “Knesset corridors” – including personal, unmediated contact with MKs and meetings with them and their staff; and third – activity in opposition to the executive authority.

Gathering and supplying information are the main techniques employed by lobbyists, and this activity manages to meet a real need of decision makers, who lack the relevant information necessary to arrive at decisions. As a result, decision makers cooperate with the lobbyists, although they are aware that the information they are receiving is biased and tendentious.

MKs’ dependency on sources of information such as those provided by lobbyists is considerable. The lobbyists’ legislation-related activity is manifested in their attempts to advance, or alternatively, to hold up legislative processes according to their client’s interests. Nevertheless, it is not possible to check how many of the Knesset’s laws have been affected by the work of lobbyists, as they are not named in the bills and are not happy to receive credit for their work, since their intervention in the legislation procedure is usually not welcomed.

The gradually expanding activity of commercial lobbyists in the Knesset corridors in recent years raises questions regarding the basic role of and justification for the lobbies. On the one hand, the very expansion of the practice and increasing demand for lobbying services show that this may be an inevitable trend, a positive development that may even be essential to any current democratic regime. This is because lobbying contributes to the shaping of legislative processes by exposing the legislative body in advance to various stakeholders who might be affected by the law, such that the evolving law is based on more diverse information, enhancing the quality of the process.

Then again, one may argue that the very fact that the lobbyists’ activity is not publicly transparent distorts the basic democratic values that support equal opportunity for all citizens. Indeed, regular citizens cannot participate in the various Knesset committees and thus express their opinions on topics that are related to or important to them.

The fact that many MKs rely on commercial lobbyists as an exclusive source of information is problematic and should be addressed, not necessarily by regulating the lobbyists’ pursuits, but by limiting the MKs’ ability to use lobbyists for their parliamentary activity.

The government must take action to reduce or even completely halt the activity of lobbyists in the Knesset, so that legislation and decision making processes are based on objective information aimed at the public good, while upholding the principle of equal opportunity among all citizens.