255 US investors warn Netanyahu overhaul may dampen cash infusions from abroad

Among signatories to letter are former US Treasury undersecretary Jeffrey Goldstein; missive says planned legislation will also make Israel harder to defend on international stage

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting on the state budget, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting on the state budget, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Over 250 US-based financial investors warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his government’s planned judicial overhaul could chill new infusions of cash into Israel, the latest signal of potentially devastating economic fallout should the controversial legislation go through.

“Many leaders in the business community will feel compelled to reevaluate their reliance on Israel as a strategic destination for investment, sourcing talent, building engineering centers, and maintaining intellectual property,” read a letter signed by 255 investors, according to Channel 12 news, which first reported on the missive Sunday.

“It will also become increasingly difficult to advocate for and defend Israel internationally.”

Among the signatories, according to the channel, were former US Treasury undersecretary Jeffrey Goldstein; Gene Ludwig, who served as comptroller of the currency for the US Treasury Department; former Citigroup foreign exchange head Jeffrey Feig and Tom Glocer, a former Thomson Reuters CEO, who recently said he would stop visiting Israel due to the judicial overhaul. Other signatories were not disclosed in the report. Gil Mandelzis, Capitolis CEO and co-founder, who initiated the letter, also signed it,

Netanyahu’s government has pushed ahead with plans to pass legislation that will sharply curtail the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on government power. The proposed changes have sparked massive protests, and warnings that investors jittery over the tumult will stop infusing money into Israel’s economy.

Among investors, concern has grown that the proposals could negatively impact Israel’s sovereign credit rating, which in turn would harm the country’s prosperous economy and its currency and trigger an outflow of funds. Last week, Israeli tech unicorn Riskified announced that they would be transferring $500 million out of the country and are offering a limited number of relocation packages to interested staff members.

In the letter, the signatories expressed “deep dismay” over the judicial shakeup, as well as deep societal divisions which have been torn open by the fight over the legislation.

“We believe that a truly independent court system is essential to democracy as well as being crucial for minority and civil rights in Israel,” the letter read. “Beyond that, the division within the country over this issue is destabilizing, and of course, disheartening.”

The writers urged Netanyahu and his hard-right government to slow down and consider less radical alternatives with broad consensus that leave checks and balances in place, while acknowledging that some judicial reforms may be called for.

And they appealed to Netanyahu to consider how history would judge him.

“Please do not allow your legacy to be the erosion of the country’s identity as the strongest (and only) democracy in the Middle East, the destruction of the country’s great economic success and the creation of a colossal divide within Israel and in the business world,” they wrote.

Jeffrey Goldstein speaks onstage at the Equality Now 30th Anniversary Gala at Guastavino’s on November 15, 2022, in New York City (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Recent data from the Tel Aviv stock exchange showed the public pulled NIS 4.3 billion ($1.2 billion) from mutual funds tracking Tel Aviv bonds in February, up from the NIS 2.5 billion ($697 million) in redemptions in January. The amount of money put into funds tracking foreign stocks and bonds over the month was nearly five times the average.

“The trend of trading on the TASE was affected by increasing disagreements over the impact of the planned legal reform on the Israeli economy, following the trend of trading in recent weeks,” the TASE said in its monthly trading report for February.

Israelis wave national flags as they protest against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Among other dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts and security officials about the planned legislation, former US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke warned that the planned overhaul would “cause tremendous damage,” in quotes aired by Channel 13 news on Saturday. “Israel needs to build a consensus regarding any significant change in the legal system,” Bernanke told the network.

Last week, the Moody’s rating agency said the government’s proposals could weaken the country’s institutional strength and negatively affect its economic outlook. Before that, credit rating group Fitch cautioned that the judicial overhaul could weaken institutional checks, leading to “worse policy outcomes or sustained negative investor sentiment.”

There have also been local warnings against the plans.

On Sunday, a group of former officials in Israel’s Finance Ministry called on Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to halt the judicial overhaul, saying it would “severely and irreversibly damage the Israeli economy.”

The signatories to the letter previously worked in the ministry’s Budgets Department, which operates across the government to prepare the national spending plan.

It came after a group of hundreds of Israeli economists issued a fresh warning earlier this month that a financial meltdown could occur even more “powerfully and faster” than they had originally forecast when they penned an “emergency letter” cautioning that the far-reaching judicial shakeup being advanced by the government could have grave implications.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich presents the state budget at his Jerusalem ministry, February 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Critics of the government’s plan say it will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an “activist” court.

A number of polls have indicated the legislation is broadly unpopular with the public.

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