This morning (Monday, October 27) the Knesset House Committee is hopefully going to approve new rules of ethics for Knesset members, submitted by MK Mickey Rosenthal (Labor) in cooperation with House Committee chairman Yariv Levin (Likud).
It is customary in Western democracies – especially the English-speaking ones – to adopt rules (or codes) of ethics (or conduct) for various professions and for holders of public office, it being recognized that the maintenance of high ethical standards is important for the sake of blocking corruption and increasing public trust. Furthermore, ethics and law are separate disciplines, though they do occasionally overlap, as for example when two Likud MKs each voted twice on the Economic Arrangements Law on May 28, 2003.
At the time they were both found guilty of a criminal offence, but were also found to have been in breach of the Knesset’s rules of ethics.
As a result of this event then Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin decided to appoint a public committee, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Prof. Yitzhaki Zamir and including ethics expert Prof. Asa Kasher, to prepare new rules of ethics for MKs, to replace those originally adopted in 1983.
The old rules, which underwent various amendments over the years, are among the most detailed and strict in the world. For example, Israel is one of only a handful of countries in which MPs are not allowed to hold a second paid job. However, the document is somewhat patchy, and many of the rules do not appear in the main document, but rather in the form of decisions taken by the Knesset Ethics Committee over the years. In addition, even though new MKs are introduced to the rules of ethics by the legal advisor to the Knesset, most MKs are not really familiar with all the details and nuances of the rules.
The Zamir Committee, appointed in August 2003, submitted its recommendation in December 2006, having done an extremely thorough job, and in the words of an expert in parliamentary ethics from the World Bank, produced a document that is “the wet dream of every expert in the field.”
However, there were two faults with the report. The first was that it took the committee three years to prepare it, by which time a new Knesset had been elected, and the new Knesset speaker, Dalia Itzik, was not committed to the outcome. The second was that the committee did not give sufficient consideration to the realities of the Knesset. It is better to produce imperfect recommendations with a good chance of being adopted than perfect ones that are likely to be rejected.
With regard to the first fault, it should be noted that in the UK, after a major scandal broke out in the House of Commons around MPs’ expenses in May 2009, within two months the government managed to pass rather draconian legislation to deal with the serious ethical problem that had emerged, which actually dared infringe on the sacred sphere of parliamentary sovereignty. Had the government (or Parliament itself) waited three years for a committee to make recommendation, it is doubtful whether anything would have been done.
With regard to the second fault, the Zamir recommendations were deliberated in the 17th Knesset by the House Committee, chaired by David Tal (Kadima), that unlike the committee in the previous Knesset was not only not committed to the work of the Zamir Committee but was actually hostile to it. In the 18th Knesset a subcommittee of the House Committee, chaired by MK Haim Oron (Meretz), once again reviewed the work of the Zamir Committee, and came up with a slightly watered-down version. Unfortunately, in neither case was the Knesset called upon to approve the final product.
In January 2014, Rosenthal decided to pick up the gauntlet, and together with the then House Committee chairman Tsahi Hanagbi (Likud) decided to try to save what could be saved of the Zamir Committee rules. Rosenthal was appointed chairman of a subcommittee to prepare his proposal for presentation to the Knesset for approval, and completed the job before the summer recess. Now the document is ready for approval.
The new document is even more watered down than the document prepared by MK Oron in the 18th Knesset. However, it is a coherent, readable document, which strengthens some of the rules (for example, with regard to conflict of interests), adds to the list of sanctions that the Ethics Committee can apply against MKs found to be in breach of the rules (here several of the proposals of the Zamir Committee were adopted), changes some procedural matters (for example, it proposes to increase the number of members of the Knesset Ethics Committee from four to five), and avoids provisions likely to raise strong opposition from MKs, by avoiding some of the more extreme proposals of the Zamir Committee.
The one major shortcoming of the new proposed rules is that they leave out the main recommendation of the Zamir Committee, which was that an external advisor on ethics be appointed in the Knesset, to work closely with the Knesset Ethics Committee, which is made up of MKs and is responsible for dealing with cases of possible breaches. The proposed advisor was designated to help inculcate the rules among MKs, to advise MKs on the practical aspects of the rules, and to carry out serious investigations when there are suspicions of breaches of the rules, whether or not these suspicions have come up in the form of formal complaints against MKs.
The opposition to the appointment of an advisor on ethics came from two directions.
The first was from MKs who said that an external advisor would be a commissar, and that there was no need for such a functionary in the Knesset. The second was from the Knesset Legal Bureau, which to date is responsible for the work of updating the rules of ethics, educating MKs regarding them and assisting the Ethics Committee in its investigations and rulings.
The first argument is demagogic. Today the legal advisor to the Knesset can be an external appointment for a five-year term, with the option for a second five-year term. Several of the Knesset’s secretaries general have also been external appointments, and nobody ever refers to these two office holders as “commissars.”
The second argument is less problematic, but it should be pointed out that even though the legal advisor to the Knesset and the legal advisor to the House Committee and Ethics Committee, who are responsible for the ethics issue in the Knesset, are highly competent in this field, they are both extremely busy with urgent legal issues, and the time they can devote to ethics is limited.
For example, I have no doubt that had an advisor on ethics existed in the Knesset before the recent election by the Knesset of the new president, we would have been spared the shameful episode of three presidential candidates having to withdraw from the contest against the background of suspected ethical, and possibly even criminal, transgressions.
Furthermore, as already pointed out above, ethics is a separate discipline from law, and in most countries it is not attorneys who deal with ethics issues, but ethics experts.
Be all this as it may, Mickey Rosenthal will certainly be able to stick a feather in his cap if he pulls off the approval of his proposal in today’s (Monday) House Committee meeting.
It is not going to be easy, since there are several MKs who are none too enthusiastic about the idea of stricter rules of ethics. I, for one, will keep my fingers crossed for him.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee who served as research assistant to the Zamir Committee.