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Op-ed

The sleaze engulfing Westminster makes our Knesset look relatively principled

Imagine the outcry if MKs were serving as paid lobbyists for commercial entities, devoting much of their week to 2nd jobs, and near-openly buying their seats in parliament

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Downing Street, in London, September 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Downing Street, in London, September 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

The British government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently embroiled in a seemingly endless stream of financial sleaze revelations, some of which, it seems to me, dwarf even the worst excesses of Israeli political corruption.

Numerous Conservative members of Parliament, and some from Labour, have been revealed to have accepted freebies — including costly tickets to sporting events, and, in at least one case, substantial direct payments — from the gambling industry, and then to have lobbied against legislative restrictions on that industry.

A senior Conservative MP was found to be receiving thousands of pounds a month from a healthcare company that was awarded COVID-related contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds, after he represented it in discussions with the relevant minister. When his conduct was exposed, the government initially sought to amend parliament’s ethics regulations so that he would not be suspended, and to undermine the parliamentary commissioner responsible for investigating such abuses. Amid the ensuing outrage, including from fellow Conservative MPs, he finally resigned 12 days ago.

It has been reported that the government’s former attorney general, a serving member of Parliament, has earned over £6 million ($8.1 million) in the past 15 years working in private practice as a lawyer — including on behalf of an overseas leader who is being investigated by the British government for corruption. In the COVID era, he has been doing some of his private legal work from the Caribbean, while voting by proxy. He has also reportedly been renting out his London home, which was partly purchased with taxpayer funds.

The ex-attorney general is hardly the only MP earning plenty of money outside parliament; it turns out that about one in four Conservative MPs, and many from the opposition benches, have second jobs, which is not illegal in the British system.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself has been attempting to evade disclosing who initially helped him pay for a refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment that cost more than six times the official budget, while fighting off allegations that he advanced the business interests of a lover when he was mayor of London.

A general view of the House of Lords chamber in session at the Houses of Parliament in London. (AFP/POOL/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

But to this ex-Brit, most staggering of all has been the revelation that donors to the party of government, if they just give enough money, can reasonably expect to be awarded a life peerage — that is, a lifelong seat — in the House of Lords, the second, “upper” chamber of parliament. The Lords, whose current 783-strong appointed membership of mostly life and hereditary peers outnumbers the House of Commons (and is second in size only to China’s National People’s Congress), has far-reaching rights to amend and in some cases even reject legislation passed by the elected members of the Commons.

Specifically, most of the men (all men) who have held the post of main Treasurer of the Conservative Party (tasked with boosting its fundraising) in the past 20 years, and who have donated in excess of £3 million ($4 million) apiece to party coffers, have been given a seat in the Lords. Next in potential line, incidentally, is Tel Aviv-born Sir Ehud Sheleg, who has donated £3.8 million to the party (and whose brother has featured in a binary options scandal of which Sir Ehud has denied all knowledge).

The mountain of sleaze has served to revive the fortunes of the opposition Labour party — which was devastated by Johnson’s Conservatives in the 2019 general elections, when mired in antisemitism under its ousted leader Jeremy Corbyn — but is now moving ahead in opinion polls.

Meanwhile, back home

Watching from Jerusalem as this daily avalanche of scandal unfolds can only invite comparison and contrast with our political norms, ethics and financial breaches.

To put it starkly, can you imagine the outcry here if it was demonstrated that MKs were serving as paid lobbyists for commercial entities and interest groups, and/or devoting much of their working week to their private business enterprises, and/or buying their seats in parliament?

Israel’s system is far from perfect. Too many parties select their MKs on the whims and preferences of their leaders; these chosen legislators are not directly, individually, elected by us or accountable to us, their constituents. And while it would be unthinkable for an MK to near-openly buy his seat in the Knesset — Conservative party treasurer-style — we certainly do not always know which interests, assets or other qualities prompt this or that party leader to place this or that would-be MK high on the party slate, and which legislation may subsequently be championed or opposed because of such MKs’ particular interests.

But we do have stringent rules barring Knesset members from holding second jobs or taking payments from commercial entities. Our campaign financing laws are increasingly stringent. And MKs are deeply limited in terms of the freebies they are allowed to receive. Even costly pens are out of order (as Ehud Olmert discovered) — never mind $40,000 bracelets.

Knesset members, experts, outside lobbyists and others participate in a 2017 meeting of the Knesset Reforms Committee discussing legislation to outlaw the binary options industry (Times of Israel staff)

Which brings us, finally, to the trial of Netanyahu. It should be no source of pride that, following the convictions of a president and one ex-prime minister, and with several other former PMs having been investigated for alleged corruption, another former PM is on trial: for the alleged illicit lucrative advancement of a mogul’s business interests, to the public’s detriment and his own personal political benefit; for allegedly seeking to illicitly skew media coverage in his favor; and for taking an alleged industrial-level supply of illicit gifts.

But however slow the system here, and however fraught and incendiary the process, how many other democracies have actually demonstrated through the decades that everybody, including senior politicians and holders of the highest offices, is equal before their laws, and held to account where appropriate?

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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