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Interview

Meet Dan Illouz, Likud’s Canadian candidate who wants to beef up the Knesset’s power

The former Jerusalem City Councilmember, slotted in 33rd place, backs a not-so-strange brew of judicial reform, West Bank annexation, and free market conservativism

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Likud candidate Dan Illouz (Sharon Hasson)
Likud candidate Dan Illouz (Sharon Hasson)

Thirteen years after moving from Quebec to Israel, former Jerusalem City Council member Dan Illouz is on the cusp of entering the Knesset with the Likud party come November 1.

The 36-year-old Francophone, also fluent in English and Hebrew, is slotted in the 33rd spot of Likud’s candidate list, after winning the primary race for Likud’s dedicated immigrant spot.

The party is projected to continue its reign as the Knesset’s largest party, polling up to 35 seats on what Illouz calls “an ideological” roster.

Immigrating to Israel in 2009 shortly after his graduation from Montreal’s McGill University, Illouz began his way to politics through Jerusalem’s pluralistic Zionist movement Hitorerut, founded as a youthful, liberal bulwark against Haredi hegemony in City Hall, which placed him on the city council. He later became the Israel representative for the arch-conservative Zionist Organization of America.

While the views of this newcomer to national politics are not well-publicized, he said he comes with a well-formed ideology, which he shared during an interview with The Times of Israel in Jerusalem last week.

A former lawyer, Illouz is committed to judicial reform. A religious Zionist who believes in the connection between the land and the nation of Israel, he opposes Palestinian statehood. And as part of an economically liberal faction of Likud activists, Illouz believes in free market economics.

Judicial reform

Illouz believes that Israel needs to undergo a series of changes that will remove the Supreme Court’s ability to act as a check on the Knesset, while giving the Knesset the right to approve or deny new candidates for the bench, and also giving the Knesset the power to act as a check on government power. He also wants to constrain the attorney general’s capacity to decide policy, making its opinions solely advisory.

Although Illouz is clear that the views expressed are his own and not officially Likud’s, much of his ideology dovetails with policies promoted by his presumptive future Knesset colleagues, including Yariv Levin, Likud’s point man on judicial reform. Illouz said he briefly worked for Levin as a parliamentary aide in 2013.

Likud candidate Dan Illouz (Sharon Hasson)

Judicial reform is one of the current Knesset race’s most substantive debates, touching on the core concepts of how Israeli democracy should function and how power should flow within it. As Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has fought the judicial system over his own legal issues, and many also now see Likud’s efforts at reforms aimed at putting its thumb on the scales of justice to help the former prime minister wriggle out of trouble.

Conservative proponents for reforming the system – including Illouz and many Likud members – argue that the current system places outsized control into the hands of the Supreme Court’s 15 justices, who use their influence to force a left-leaning agenda on the country.

Other judicial reformers argue for stronger checks and balances, and do not wish to collapse the current system in favor of transferring unchecked power to elected officials.

Substantive judicial review is the process by which the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice invalidates parts of or whole Knesset laws on the basis of violating Israel’s Basic Laws. The debate over whether the court should have this power at all and how the Knesset might override it has reared its head several times since court president Aharon Barak’s landmark 1995 decision that the Basic Laws can stand in as a constitution, allowing newer legislation to be weighed against it.

“In my personal opinion, judicial review right now is not justified in Israel because we don’t have a constitution. I think it shouldn’t happen at all,” Illouz said. “I think the power should be in the Knesset.”

Measures giving the Knesset the ability to override a court veto have come up several times, most recently in a 2021 proposal by Levin. But critics say it would remove an essential check on the legislature, especially if possible with only a simple majority of lawmakers.

Illouz supports such a measure, but wants the Knesset to also have the ability to act as a check on government ministers, so that it doesn’t just replace a judicial master with a political one. Because most government ministers are politicians that come out of the elected Knesset and some retain their seats within it, Israel’s legislative and executive bodies are inexorably intertwined.

Then-Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, in the plenum hall, June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

“In my perspective, this has to come as a package deal which includes stronger powers for the Knesset to oversee government action,” Illouz said, explaining that this might include stronger oversight committees. “The balance of powers in Israel is not right, not just between the judiciary and the executive, but also between the legislature and the executive,” Illouz added.

This nuance is perhaps his biggest departure from some of Likud’s sitting politicians, who have advocated reforms that would squarely place elements of the judicial system within government political control.

Because Knesset politicians aren’t elected individually by region, but rather on nationwide party slates, Illouz said he worries that “loyalty ends up being first and foremost to the party, not to constituents, because there are no constituents.”

This creates a system in which “the executive is really strongest,” although he thinks that the Knesset should be stronger, “in an ideal world.”

Illouz has also slightly broken with Likud on judicial appointments. The party has pushed to nix the current Judicial Selection Committee — made up of politicians, lawyers and judges — and instead allow the government to appoint candidates and send them to the Knesset for simple majority approval.

In a functioning coalition with a disciplined 61-seat majority in the 120-seat body, this would effectively mean ruling politicians could push through desired candidates without opposition or professional input.

Illouz favors retaining the current committee, but adding Knesset majority approval as a political check.

“I want people to believe in the judicial process and the judicial system… My end goal is not to destroy the courts, it’s the opposite. At the end of the process, balance the different branches so that the courts are in their place, doing what they’re supposed to do and doing it effectively and strongly,” he said.

He also wants to remove one more check on the Knesset and government: the attorney general, who can decide what government decisions are kosher and defensible in court. Illouz prefers instead that the attorney general only be allowed an advisory role.

He has yet to form an opinion on the debate over spinning off the attorney general’s role as the nation’s top prosecutorial authority, which can sometimes lead to the same person both advising a politician on legal matters and deciding to indict that person.

Settlements and diplomatic solutions

On the Palestinians, Illouz espouses views that can at times seem more closely aligned with hardliners, rejecting Palestinian statehood and embracing the idea of a territorially maximalist Israel that should rule every inch of the West Bank, even areas with no Jewish presence.

“Our rights to the land of Israel include every centimeter of the Land of Israel, including Shchem [Nablus] and Hebron and areas without any Jew living there right now, including Ramallah,” Illouz said, referring to Palestinian cities in what is considered the biblical heartland.

“The right to Tel Aviv comes from Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.

Likud candidate Dan Illouz (Sharon Hasson)

Although his territorial views have some home in Likud, they are more closely aligned with Religious Zionism or ultra-nationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party.

“Listen, I don’t vote for Ben Gvir, I vote for Likud. There are reasons for that,” he said.

“Even if you say Ben Gvir is extreme, he’s extreme but on our side,” he added, in contrast to Arab political partners chosen by the outgoing coalition.

Illouz says it’s “reasonable” to extend Israeli sovereignty to Area C of the West Bank, where the largest Israeli settlement blocs exist, though he admits that the time is yet not ripe for a more comprehensive move.

“We should extend sovereignty where we can,” he said, rather than persist in the current legal limbo that extends most Israeli civil and criminal law to Israelis living in the West Bank, but treats Palestinians in the same territory legally differently.

Though he is running with a party that recently refused to support continued rights and protections for West Bank settlers, placing them in limbo to help trigger new elections, Illouz complained that settlers should be treated better.

“[Settlers] are citizens but the state doesn’t treat them as full citizens,” Illouz said in support of sovereignty.

Regarding Palestinians living in the West Bank, Illouz said he supports the current limited autonomy they experience, but said that the shape of any final autonomy would be part of “things that will be decided in negotiations.”

Free market economics

Backed for election by a free market flank within Likud, Illouz said he believes in removing barriers to competition, reducing the power of interest groups like unions, and reducing red tape.

Addressing Israel’s skyrocketing cost of living – itself another prominent election issue – Illouz said that the free market offers the strongest solution.

“You have a lot of populist ideas flying around. What I think is you need is a stronger free market with less barriers to competition, whether it’s internal competition within Israel or external competition, including trade, or trying to deal with the very strong interest groups, including unions, which is very difficult to do, but it’s something that we need to address,” he said.

The former Jerusalem City Council member said his time in city hall watching inefficiencies in municipal registries led to him to understand the need for streamlining government work.

“A lot of times in Israel, the bureaucracy comes from a good place, a desire to protect,” he said. But, he added, he wants to “make it oversight, not barriers.”

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