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Head of think tank behind overhaul push says it was rushed, poorly prepared

The head of a conservative think tank whose ideas formed the ideological basis of the current government’s judicial overhaul program has said in a new interview that the coalition advanced the plan in a hasty and irresponsible manner.

Prof. Moshe Koppel heads the Kohelet Policy Forum, which has been pushing libertarian and conservative ideas in Israel for the past decade in various fields, including in the economy and commerce as well as in the justice system, which it says has siphoned off excessive powers over the government in recent decades that need to be rebalanced.

But Kohelet earlier this year called for compromise on the highly controversial overhaul, whose original form was extreme and was pushed relentlessly for months through the Knesset, despite broad opposition by protesters who saw it as an attempt to undermine democracy by granting the government unchecked powers.

A highly successful protest movement ultimately forced the government to pause the overhaul. Only one bill from the plan has so far been passed, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he does not plan to move forward with much of it — though he does still plan to pass a central plank of the program, the reshaping of the country’s Judicial Selection Committee.

“If you want to do something major, you need to do it in a very thought-out and deliberate manner,” Koppel told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published on Friday. “The government did not prepare properly. It was rushed.”

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“Those who are now in the coalition are going to need to learn how to govern responsibly — and they haven’t,” he added.

The protest movement has targeted Kohelet and its members and donors. The think tank’s offices were raided by demonstrators in April, and US-based protesters hounded its chief donor Arthur Dantchik until he stopped funding Kohelet.

After the passage of a bill barring the High Court of Justice from evaluating government decisions based on the doctrine of “reasonableness,” Netanyahu has now repeatedly said he only wants to change how Israel selects judges, to remove the veto power currently enjoyed by sitting Supreme Court justices on the panel. Previous plans aimed to grant the coalition complete control of most judicial appointments, which critics said would eliminate the judiciary’s independence and remove the last effective check on government power.

Asked where the overhaul should go from here, Koppel said: “I think the government should reach a compromise, and then say it is moving no further.”

However, he did say the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee should be changed “roughly in the direction of the German system.” The Wall Street Journal said he meant “a selection committee, appointed proportionately by the Knesset, [that] would need a supermajority to install a judge.”

Several months after the overhaul was unveiled, Koppel publicly criticized a central part of it that would have granted the Knesset the power to bypass High Court oversight on legislation by using a so-called “override clause.” Koppel called that idea “stupid.”

Koppel said Friday that he’s spent most of his time since the overhaul was announced on January 4 talking to opponents of the plan, contending that most of them aren’t interested in truly reaching balance between the branches of government, but rather just in preserving the current power of the judiciary, which he — like many on the right — views as excessive.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the offices of the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum think tank, which is helping spearhead the overhaul of Israel’s judiciary, in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

He said overhaul opponents typically argue to him that Israel’s government lacks checks and balances prevalent in most democracies, and that he then agrees with them and suggests reforms strengthening the Knesset’s power to act as a balance on the government.

“The solution to the improperly calibrated relationship between the executive and the legislature is not to have the judges take more authority for themselves. If you have a problem with the legislature and executive, fix it,” he said.

But his audience usually “loses interest” when he makes that argument, Koppel said, claiming that checks and balances are just the “formal argument” and that their real motive is fear of what political opponents could do.

“They basically say, look, our tribe prefers that the administrative state and the judicial bureaucracy have more power than the elected government because they advance our interests more than the elected government does,” he said, adding: “You don’t get to call that democracy.”

Koppel also gave some details about his longtime strategy of influencing Israeli politicians to increasingly adopt and implement his conservative, libertarian ideas in various fields.

“I learned how the system works, how you get stuff done in the Knesset. It turns out it’s not that hard. The important thing is to control the text and give credit to everybody but yourself. And on that basis, I started dabbling in this stuff,” he said.