ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Advocates for Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul reach out to English-speaking audience

Amid mounting opposition abroad, defenders of planned changes, including powerful Kohelet Policy Forum and right-wing influencer Ben Shapiro, are pressing their case in English

The Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing Israeli think tank, released an English-language video arguing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed judicial reforms. (Screenshot via JTA. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
The Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing Israeli think tank, released an English-language video arguing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed judicial reforms. (Screenshot via JTA. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

JTA — The video gives a “Schoolhouse Rock” vibe: Cartoon figures climb the names of the three branches of the US government — “legislature” at the base, “judiciary” at the top and “executive” sandwiched in the middle — as part of a lesson on governance.

But while the video is in English, the government it refers to is not American but Israeli. And the video was produced not by an educational television company but by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank that is widely understood to have influenced the rightward shift within Israeli politics.

The video’s release on Twitter Wednesday appears to be part of a wave of efforts to sell one particularly controversial aspect of that shift — proposed reforms to Israel’s judiciary — to skeptical English speakers. While the many critics of the proposed changes say they would bring Israel out of line with other democracies, all of the English-language efforts press the case that the opposite is true.

“The reforms in progress will address the anomalies of the Israeli system and bring Israel just a few steps closer to the rest of the Western democracies,” concludes the Kohelet Forum video, which features a caped jurist superhero.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forcefully defended the proposed changes, which include allowing the parliament to overrule the Supreme Court in certain cases and may have the added benefit of insulating himself from his ongoing corruption prosecution. But he appears to have underestimated opposition to the reforms, which has come not just from liberal Israelis and American Jews but from traditionally nonpartisan think tanks, legal scholars, and even right-leaning Americans.

Unlike some of the other changes called for by members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which includes far-right extremists and religious parties, the judicial changes are raising questions about core values held by most pro-Israel American conservatives: that Israel is a democratic oasis in the Middle East and that business savvy is an Israeli strength. Foreign investors and international credit agencies have both signaled that if the reforms go through, they will downgrade their estimation of the country.

“The conservative right was with [Netanyahu] and now he seems to be riding the tiger of the radical right,” David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in December on the day the government was sworn in, before it had begun turning its ideas into policy proposals. “And I think that is bound to alienate the very people who counted on him being risk-averse and to focus on the economy.”

In a notable symbol of this shift, Bret Stephens, the New York Times columnist who has been a staunch defender of Netanyahu, publicly broke with him on Wednesday, writing that the judicial reforms convinced him that the prime minister had “moved along the current of illiberal democracy whose other champions include Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.” Meanwhile, Alan Dershowitz, the constitutional lawyer who is usually a stalwart supporter of Israel, has also criticized the reforms.

“It’s a high bar for conservatives in contemporary American politics to criticize Israel, but there have been some cracks,” said Scott Lasensky, who teaches on US-Israel relations at the University of Maryland.

Whether the English-language defenses emanate from any kind of coordinated public relations strategy is unclear. But Lasensky said Netanyahu may feel that he needs to explain why he is dismantling the judiciary to American conservatives, who cherish a judicial system independent of the pressures of successive liberal Democratic administrations.

“American conservatives have a majority on their courts — they don’t want to change their courts,” he said.

It’s unlikely that the Kohelet video will reach an audience anywhere the size that Stephens has. But another defense of the judicial reforms released this week certainly can: that made by Ben Shapiro, an American Jewish right-wing pundit with more than 20 million followers across platforms, on his Daily Wire podcast, which says it has more than 1 million paid subscribers.

“They want the judges of the Supreme Court to be appointed by the prime minister and approved by the Knesset, which sounds like the system in the United States,” Shapiro said in the segment. “They want to ensure, because Israel does not have a constitution, that the Supreme Court will not be able to come up with a constitution in a move of judicial dictatorship. … It’s ridiculous.”

Netanyahu briefly shared a video of Shapiro’s comments on Twitter before his tweet was removed. The version that Netanyahu shared features Hebrew subtitles as well as a message from the person who made it suggesting that Shapiro — who spoke in Israel for the first time last summer — can convince Israelis and Americans alike: “Ben Shapiro supports the judicial reform and not just that he explains why. Watch and join in.”

In yet another English-language defense of the proposed judicial reforms, Tablet, the online Jewish magazine that is known for airing conservative and often inflammatory ideas, published an essay by Gadi Taub, a prominent Israeli conservative.

“The press has got it backwards. Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s new justice minister, is not out to destroy democracy,” Taub wrote in the essay published Wednesday. “He is out to restore it.”

The English-language defenses are particularly notable given Netanyahu’s longtime boast that he does not care about winning over Americans to his domestic agenda. But Josh Block, a former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said Netanyahu is interested in having Americans be convinced that he is driving changes, not the extremists with whom he is aligned in government.

“He clearly feels the need to try to reassure people across the political spectrum in the United States, that he’s in charge of his government,” said Block, who is now a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “That the decisions that will be made rest with him and not with people who are subordinate to him, who may have ideas that are anathema to some of us in the United States.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu may be sensitive to a major criticism leveled by his immediate predecessors, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who accused the current prime minister of alienating Israel’s most important ally, said a former senior US official who dealt with Israel policy.

“It cuts against one of the arguments of the opposition that these reforms, or this plan, will weaken Israel’s standing in the community of democracies, including its relationship with the United States,” said the official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “‘Well, look, there are Americans who are endorsing it and saying good things about it,’ Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] can say.”

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