PM, coalition, fare poorly on support for transparency, study suggests

PM, coalition, fare poorly on support for transparency, study suggests

Independent media site reviews lawmakers’ votes on transparency bills, readiness to go public on personal wealth; study leader: ‘No government likes exposure, supervision’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coalition head and Likud parliament member David Amsalem (R) and Minister of Communication Ayoub Kara at a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coalition head and Likud parliament member David Amsalem (R) and Minister of Communication Ayoub Kara at a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A new review of Knesset members’ attitudes toward transparency has shown that coalition MKs have voted overwhelmingly against the transparency-related legislation that has been put forward by opposition lawmakers, while also being less than forthcoming about their own personal wealth.

The study measures each Knesset member against criteria such as voting records, willingness to detail personal wealth and make one’s diaries public, attendance at Knesset debates and committee meetings, criminal charges, and miscellaneous misdemeanors, and absences from the Knesset due to overseas travel.

Published online on Tuesday, the work — started after the last election and set to expand over the coming months — was carried out by Shakuf (the Hebrew word for “transparent”), a non-profit site for independent news investigation, headed by investigative journalist Tomer Avital.

Avital told The Times of Israel that mechanisms such as party discipline were more to blame for voting patterns than were the makeup of the governing parties. No parties wanted exposure or supervision once in government, and that applied to left-of-center coalitions as well.

Investigative journalist Tomer Avital. (Facebook)

He added that, while international comparisons are complex, Israel does well on some transparency markers, though lagging behind other countries on making public subjects such as MKs’ economic interests and the behind-the-scenes activities of lobbyists.

To assess the rate of support for legislation aimed at boosting financial transparency, Shakuf analyzed voting for four bills advanced over the past five years, all of them by opposition MKs. None of them became law.

The first, initiated by Ilan Gilon of the left-wing Meretz party and voted down in mid-2013, sought to oblige members of the Knesset’s finance and economic affairs committees to make their shareholdings public. This was to ensure that financial information they gained through their committee work could not be exploited for personal gain through insider trading..

The second was put forward in 2015 by former investigative journalist turned Zionist Union MK, Mickey Rosenthal, to obligate Knesset members to make public wealth declarations, which are currently obligatory, but confidential.

Zionist Camp MK Mickey Rosenthal attends an Education, Culture and Sports committee meeting in the Knesset on December 22, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The third and fourth, advocated by Yesh Atid’s Aliza Lavie in 2016 and again in 2017, sought to bring so-called Ottoman societies — among them the powerful Histadrut labor federation with its estimated annual budget of NIS 700 million ($185.5 million) — into line with non-profit organizations, which are supervised and must make their financial statements public.

Bizarrely still subject to Turkish law, Ottoman societies are exempt from publishing annual reports and are not subject to state comptroller investigations, for example.

In the main, coalition MKs voted against these bills, with the opposition voting in favor, although there were some exceptions.

Yisrael Beytenu head and former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, for example, was absent for most of the votes on the bills in question, but did support Gilon’s  bill to oblige finance and economic affairs committee members to make their shareholdings public. Fellow party member Sofa Landver supported both Gilon’s bill and Rosenthal’s bill to publish lawmaker’s wealth declarations.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference in Netanya, on November 22, 2018. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

By contrast, Yesh Atid’s Mickey Levy — a member of the Knesset Finance Committee, who is known for his financial transparency campaigning — voted in favor of most of the bills, but abstained from the proposal to require finance and economic affairs committee members to reveal their own stocks.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, appeared just once for these votes, opposing public access to MKs’ wealth declarations. Party colleague Ayelet Shaked, the current justice minister, turned up to vote against Aliza Lavie’s first attempt at forcing financial transparency on the so-called Ottoman organizations.

This year, however, Shaked is taking her own steps to force the Histadrut and many other Ottoman societies to publish their accounts.

Those who voted against every one of the transparency bills included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism).

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni chairs a Knesset Finance Committee on March 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Not all those who pushed transparency legislation were prepared to make their own wealth public.

Unlike Gilon, who gave a full accounting of his property, savings, and car, and got extra marks for insisting on returning all donations once he had decided to abandon the Meretz leadership race because of health problems, Rosenthal, who sponsored the public wealth declaration bill, estimated his own personal wealth at NIS 7 million ($1.85 million) when asked by Shakuf, but did not provide any detail.

Mickey Levy and Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid both refused to divulge anything about their own wealth, as did the party’s Yael German, who supported all of the transparency bills.

By contrast, Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid and Kulanu boss Moshe Kahlon – neither of whom came to vote on any of the transparency bills — did provide accounts of their own wealth.

Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon holds a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Lapid, a former journalist, declared total wealth of NIS 10.4 million ($2.7 million), consisting of a NIS 6.5 million ($1.7 million) house in upscale Ramat Aviv (near Tel Aviv), NIS 2.5 million ($663,000) in savings plans, pension and retirement plans worth NIS 1.1 million ($290,000), a Suzuki car and an NIS 324,000 ($85,000) mortgage.

Kahlon, who is responsible for the state’s finances, listed everything from a property valued at NIS 3.5 million ($930,000) and his Seat car, down to his current account at the bank which, at the time of reporting, stood at minus NIS 15,600 shekels (-$4,150), and his credit card bill of NIS 32,800 ($8,700).

Knesset Speaker Yoel “Yuli” Edelstein (Likud), who is married to the daughter of Russian-born Israeli billionaire businessman Leonid Nevzlin, refused to detail his wealth and voted against the transparency legislation.

So did Jewish Home’s Bennett, who made millions in high-tech, prior to entering the Knesset. A Forbes Israel ranking of Israeli politicians published in mid-2016 estimated his wealth at NIS 30 million ($8 million), behind Netanyahu’s NIS 42 million ($11.1 million).

Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

At that time, Forbes valued Lapid’s personal wealth at NIS 22 million ($5.8 million) and that of Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay, a former CEO of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, at NIS 25 million ($6.6 million).

(Gabbay does not feature in the survey because, while serving as co-leader of the Zionist Union (with Tzipi Livni), he is not an elected Knesset member.)

Avigdor Liberman, who has been questioned numerous times on suspected corruption, but was acquitted of fraud and breach of trust allegations in late 2013, provided details on various holdings — a house in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim valued at NIS 1.35 million ($360,000) and savings worth NIS 284,000 ($75,400).

So did Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, whom police have recommended charging with fraud, breach of trust, obstructing court proceedings, money laundering, and tax offenses involving millions of shekels.

Deri reported on a NIS 4.7 million ($1.25 million) apartment in the religious Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof, stocks worth around $300,000, and outstanding loans of NIS 1.1 million ($290,000).

Shakuf noted that the Deri family owns many additional properties.

MK David Bitan speaks with supporters at a Likud party event in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)

The coalition’s former strongman chairman, David Bitan, who is being investigated on suspicion that he accepted hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes, reported owning an apartment in the central city of Rishon LeZion worth around NIS 1 million ($265,000), plus another apartment in the same city which was not valued and one 16th of a house and land in Nahlat Yehuda, an agricultural village north of Rishon.

His replacement as coalition boss, David Amsalem, reported owning a house in the city of Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and an apartment in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon.

These latter two men were only willing to divulge property ownership.

Among those declaring that they did not own any property were MKs Oren Hazan and Sharren Haskell, both of Likud, Zionist Union’s Ksenia Svetlova, and Karin Elharrar of Yesh Atid.

United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev leads a Science and Technology Committee meeting in the Knesset, June 4, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Shakuf survey also analyzed Knesset attendance, awarding high marks to  Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), Dov Khenin (Joint List), Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Jewish Home), and Zionist Union’s Michal Biran, Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shafir. Among ministers, Likud’s Gilad Erdan came top for attendance.

The most frequent flyers — according to Knesset calculations — included Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), Meirav Ben-Ari (Kulanu), Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the Joint (Arab) List’s Ayman Odeh, Hanin Zouabi and Ahmad Tibi (Joint Arab List), and Zionist Union’s Ksenia Svetlova and Michal Biran.

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