Based on portrayals in books, movies, and unfortunately, sometimes real life, people tend to have a dim view of political lobbyists. Enter Rachel Gur – the lawyer and Knesset lobbyist who’s helping turn that stereotype on its ear through her work with Lobby 99.
Itself one-of-a-kind, Lobby 99 is the first crowdfunded, non-profit public interest lobbying firm in the world. Its mission: lobby Israel’s legislative body for the public good, as opposed to corporate lobbies, which advocate on behalf of large companies.
Speaking with her good friend Amanda Borschel-Dan, Jewish World and Archaeology editor at The Times of Israel, Gur (who, full disclosure, also happens to be married to The Times of Israel’s senior analyst, Haviv Rettig-Gur) breaks down just what sets Lobby 99 apart from other lobbies.
“We use the same tools that commercial lobbyists use to influence decision makers – the big difference is in who we’re representing,” Gur says.
In its relatively short five-year lifespan, Lobby 99 has helped bring parliamentary attention to issues such as Israel’s notorious traffic congestion, public bailouts for tycoons, banking reform, tax revenues from public resources, monopolies in Israel, and transparency for lobbyists – to name just a few.
“I would not agree with the [common] definition of lobbyists as slimy,” Gur says, “because I think if they were slimy they would just be much less effective.”
“Especially here in Israel, lobbyists tend to be people who, like me, spent many years ‘in the system,’” she says. “They’re people who have a lot of experience with the informal rules of how the system works, how you create legislation, and they often have more knowledge of the system than the MKs themselves.”
Lobby 99 is itself so effective in large part due to its model. While it’s listed as a non-profit, it largely operates similar to a company, and its 7,500 members are like shareholders.
Members can determine their own dues, starting at just one shekel a month – though their donations are capped at NIS 1,500 ($440) per month, “because we don’t want people to have undue influence,” Gur says. And, she says, “no matter how much you decide to pay, everyone gets the same voting rights.”
Gur also stresses that in order to be eligible to join, you have to be a human being – no corporations allowed.
She goes on to address one of the biggest issues facing the average Israeli – the monopolies fueling sky-high prices of consumer goods, something Lobby 99 is working to change.
“The vast majority of things you buy day-to-day are imported by one of two mega conglomerates. Most Israelis aren’t aware of that, but as you go through the supermarket aisle and are filling up your cart, most of the things you’re filling it up with are actually imported by these two companies,” Gur says, adding that products include Colgate toothpaste, Gillette razors, Head and Shoulders shampoo, Palmolive soaps, and Speed Stick deodorants, among other commonly-used items.
“[These two companies] have control of the majority of sales for the majority of the items that you buy in the supermarket, and that allows them, in our opinion, to keep prices artificially high,” Gur says.
She says that putting the United States aside, prices in Israel are significantly higher even than Europe – toothpaste prices are 30 to 90 percent higher, deodorant 30 to 70%, and coffee 50 to 80% higher, to be exact.
“To put it very simply,” she says, “everybody’s buying everything from the same person.”