Kohelet reportedly deletes columns in support of override

Economist at think tank that helped shape overhaul quits in opposition to legislation

In latest sign of division at Kohelet, Tom Sadeh says he was never silenced for views, but feels he can’t work at organization that inspired government’s radical program

A banner with the Kohelet Policy Forum logo, April 10, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A banner with the Kohelet Policy Forum logo, April 10, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

An economist for the Kohelet Policy Forum, the right-wing think tank that inspired the government’s judicial overhaul proposals, resigned on Thursday over the group’s role in the effort.

Announcing his resignation, Tom Sadeh emphasized that he enjoyed academic freedom at Kohelet, adding that he was never silenced for his opposition to the legislation and that vibrant debates on the overhaul were held at the office.

“It’s important for me to note that the people at Kohelet are good people, with good intentions. The good of the country is before them, even if they are mistaken in my opinion,” Sadeh tweeted.

“Personally, as someone who completely disagrees with the official position of the forum on such a critical issue, I feel the right step for me is to not stay a part of it,” he added.

Central pillars of the legislative package, which would bring Israel’s judiciary largely under political control, include giving the coalition complete control over judicial selections and severely limiting the High Court of Justice from acting as a brake on the executive and legislature.

The coalition claims the package will strengthen Israeli democracy, curb an overly interventionist High Court and better reflect the will of the electorate. Critics and the growing mass protest movement warn the package will destroy the separation of powers, render basic rights unprotected and upend Israel’s foundational democratic principles of equality and personal freedoms.

Tom Sadeh (via Twitter)

Kohelet researchers played key roles in developing many of the new government’s policies regarding the judiciary. Justice Minister Yariv Levin has cited Aviad Bakshi, the head of the institution’s legal department, as one of the scholars he consulted while drawing up the far-reaching proposals.

The organization became a target for the anti-overhaul movement, with the Brothers in Arms protest group barricading Kohelet’s Jerusalem offices with sandbags and barbed wire last week.

The entrance to the offices of the Kohelet Forum, the conservative think tank deeply involved in the judicial overhaul, blockaded by protesters, March 9, 2023. (Flash90)

Earlier this week, Kohelet called for a compromise to the government’s plans, noting that achieving a broad consensus over “necessary changes” to the country’s judiciary was an important component for longer-term constitutional change.

The organization suggested that the highly contentious High Court override law could be removed entirely from the legislative package, and that compromise over concerns regarding the abusive use of Basic Laws could be overcome, although it appeared less open to serious compromise on the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee.

According to a Globes report Thursday, the think tank has sifted through its archive to delete opinion columns expressing support for the override clause, which would allow lawmakers to shield legislation from judicial review or re-legislate laws that are struck down.

Michael Sarel, head of the Kohelet Economic Forum and Sadeh’s former boss, also penned an opinion critical of the legislation earlier in March, writing: “If the reform paves the way for severe damage to liberal democracy, there will also be severe damage to the economy in the medium term.”

File: Michael Sarel, head of the Kohelet Economic Forum, April 10, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He warned that the proposals as currently being advanced give unlimited power to the government, with the potential for dangerous abuse.

A number of companies have already said they will pull their finances from the country because of the coming legislation that the government is blitzing through the Knesset.

Sarel was joined by other senior economists at the organization, among them Nissan Abraham, who wrote “my opinion is similar to Michael’s.”

Meir Rubin, CEO of Kohelet, told Globes that Sarel offered his opinion in coordination with the forum, which he said welcomes diverse opinions within its ranks.

However, he was surprised that the focus of the criticism was the economic, not legal consequences of the legislation.

“The discussion is first of all over values ​​concerning the legal arrangement, which has economic and other significances. A computer heats the room, but no one turns on a computer to heat the room. The story is not economic or military, but legal. We did not expect that the main part of the protest would be in the context of security and the economy,” he said.

President Isaac Herzog presents his proposed alternative framework on the judicial overhaul, on March 15, 2023 (Video screenshot)

On Wednesday night, President Isaac Herzog announced his proposed compromise framework, which was published on a new website as he spoke, addresses critical aspects of the relationship between the branches of government, including giving greater constitutional heft to the Basic Laws, how judges are selected, judicial review over Knesset legislation, and the authority of government legal advisers and the attorney general. It would also enshrine some fundamental civil rights in the Basic Laws that are not explicitly protected at present.

Kohelet praised Herzog’s attempts at compromise but criticized his proposals. “The outline presented by the president exacerbates the problems the judicial reform is designed to resolve, does not address others and abandons broad agreements that have already been reached,” the think tank said.

Despite 11 weeks of mass protests against the government’s plans and stark warnings from business, military, legal and financial officials in Israel and around the world, the coalition has not paused or slowed down any of its planned legislation. On Sunday, the Knesset is scheduled to vote to give final approval to a bill that would severely limit the ability of courts or lawmakers to remove a prime minister who is unfit for office. Further votes to finalize other portions of the plan, including the highly contentious override clause, are expected by the end of the month.

Herzog has led calls in recent weeks for opposition and coalition lawmakers to sit down for negotiations, urged the coalition to “abandon” the current legislation, and warned Wednesday that Israel is heading toward a “real civil war” amid the bitter national dispute over the overhaul plan.

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