Israel is not the only country where members of parliament receive funds to spend in their constituencies – whether geographical or sectoral.
For example, in the United States, Congressmen receive “earmarks” to spend on projects in their districts that are dear to them, and in France members of the National Assembly and the Senate receive funds from what is known as the “réserve parlementaire,” for the same purpose.
However, unlike the practice in Israel, in the US and France all parliamentarians – whether their party is in government or in opposition – are entitled to the allocations. In France the annual sum that each representative is entitled to is 130,000 euros. In the US the sums vary, but the total annual allocation is vast.
According to one source, in 2016 they reached a total of $5.1 billion. The reason it is impossible to reach an authoritative figure is that the sums appear in the annual Appropriations Bill which Congress approves, in thousands of different clauses, and are not distinguished as earmarks.
In Israel, the allocated coalition funds to individual MKs are usually provided in return for something. Most recently around NIS 300 million were allocated to coalition MKs to ensure that the biennial budget would get through on time, and without any major changes (this in addition to around NIS 2 billion of coalition funds).
In other words, the government paid its own MKs over a quarter of a billion shekels to vote for its budget.
One can see the exact sums on the website of the Knesset Finance Committee. They include NIS 42 million for the coalition chairman David Bitan, NIS 40 million for coalition coordinator Micky Zohar, NIS 32.9 million for the chairman of the House Committee, Yoav Kisch and NIS 40 million for the chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee. David Amsalem. MKs Oren Hazan and Nava Boker received NIS 10 million each. In other words, six Likud MKs received NIS 175 million to behave themselves. It should be noted that the allotted funds are included as specified programs, in accordance with the requests of the various MKs, in the budgets of the relevant ministries. Thus, the 40 million shekels allotted to Zohar appear as 26 items, divided among the Ministries of Defense, Education, Interior, Religious Services, Education, Agriculture, Labor and Welfare, the Periphery the Negev and the Galilee, Culture and Sports.
Incidentally, the procedure by which coalition funds and other political funds are allocated is perfectly legal, though they must be allocated for purposes that already appear in the budget. Following suspicions against former Yisrael Beitenu MK Fania Kirschenbaum and others, who were accused of cutting a fat coupon for themselves from coalition fund they distributed, in 2015 former attorney-general Yehuda Weinsten published instructions that the allocations must be transparent.
However, the problem with the system is not only the fact that they are open to corruption, but that they blur the separation between the legislative and executive branches of government, which in any case is rather blurred in the parliamentary system of government that prevails in Israel.
In a parliamentary democracy it is the executive which is supposed to lay down and execute policy, while the legislature is supposed to supervise the government, while doing its best to influence and modify this policy.
In Israel, because of the incoherency of the government and the inability or unwillingness of prime ministers to actually lead them and keep their coalition partners in order, around half the laws passed by the Knesset – including major pieces of legislation – originate in private members’ bills.
The system under which funds are allocated to individual MKs in the coalition to advance projects that were not originally included in the budget, further blurs the separation, and convinces the MKs involved that they have the power to take executive decisions, even though they are not members of the executive.
The comments of MK Micky Zohar in the course of the deliberations on the budget in the Knesset Finance Committee last week, in reply to accusations that fund allocations are nothing less than political bribery, are revealing.
“[The funds I requested] are intended for three issues that are important and dear to me”, he said. “... the periphery... settlement [in Judea and Samaria], and...
Judaism... My considerations were the agenda that got me elected to the Knesset. It is a shame that I received only NIS 40 million. I would have been happy to receive NIS 100 million for this agenda.”
The problem is that all three goals mentioned by Zohar are also the goals of the government, which are provided for generously in the budget, which as a member of the Likud Zohar is required to support within the framework of coalition discipline. The fact that the only reason that Zohar and his colleagues were singled out as the recipients of “money to spend” is that they are potential troublemakers with the power to obstruct the government’s policy. This creates a highly irregular situation, which does not bode well for the future. As the saying goes, “appetites grow with the eating,” and this procedure is likely to continue to expand, to the benefit of the troublemakers.
Incidentally, the claim that the Netanyahu government has not invented anything that didn’t exist before, is inaccurate. In 1992 the second Rabin government actually got rid of the system of “special funds” granted to individual MKs (most notably haredi ones) by the Knesset Finance Committee from specially designated allocations within the budget. Though the allocation of such funds returned in a more regulated form, for which the relevant ministries were made responsible, the sums involved were much smaller than they are today. “Coalition funds” had not yet been invented.