Michael Bloomberg warns Israel ‘courting disaster’ with judicial overhaul

Billionaire former New York mayor urges Netanyahu to ‘slow down’ controversial legislation, says he understands those pulling funds from country

Former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg (L), seen with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Bloomberg arrives in Israel on July 23, 2014. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg (L), seen with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Bloomberg arrives in Israel on July 23, 2014. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Former New York City mayor and longtime Israel supporter Michael Bloomberg published a New York Times op-ed Sunday warning against the Israeli government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary and sympathizing with those who are already pulling their funds out of the country for fear of the fallout.

It was the latest in a series of alarms raised by prominent figures abroad against the planned legislation.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is courting disaster” by trying to claim powers that are above review and is “imperiling Israel’s alliances around the world, its security in the region, its economy at home, and the very democracy upon which the country was built,” Bloomberg warned.

The billionaire spoke of his “fervent hope” that Netanyahu would heed President Isaac Herzog and “pull back and slow down” his coalition’s legislative plans.

The coalition is pushing a dramatic judicial restructuring that would increase government control over the judiciary. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Bloomberg assessed that the economic damage from the proposed changes is already being felt and noted that last month the shekel fell to a three-year record low against the dollar and euro. He noted that “a broad swath of business leaders and investors” have spoken out against the proposals “and, in a disturbing sign,” some have already begun pulling money out of the country while “re-evaluating their plans for future growth there.”

“As the owner of a global company, I don’t blame them,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, flanked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / POOL / AFP)

Bloomberg said that companies and investors “place enormous value on strong and independent judicial systems because courts help protect them — not only against crime and corruption but also government overreach.”

“The extraordinary rise in Israel’s economic standing over the last generation may be Mr. Netanyahu’s greatest achievement,” he continued. “Yet unless he changes course, Mr. Netanyahu risks throwing all that progress — and his own hard-earned legacy — away.”

Aside from the economic impact, Bloomberg wrote, there is Israel’s security, which greatly relies on the relationship with the United States, is “built on shared values — freedom, equality, democracy,” and can only be maintained “by a commitment to the rule of law, including an independent judiciary capable of upholding it.”

If Israel moved to a form of governance “that mirrors those of authoritarian countries,” it risks upsetting its ties to the US and other free nations, resulting in a “devastating loss” for Israel’s security, damage to the prospects of peace with the Palestinians, he warned, adding that such a prospect “could even imperil the future of the Jewish homeland.”

Israel, he noted, is in “one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods” and faces existential threats. “The more divided it is at home, the weaker it appears to its enemies,” Bloomberg said.

The overhaul, he warned, would also undermine the “deep attachment millions of people around the world feel toward the country,” forged not just from its Jewish character, but its commitment to freedom.

Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, speaks at the opening of the US Pavilion at the COP27 UN Climate Summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 8, 2022. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

“I have never gotten involved in its domestic politics or criticized its government initiatives,” Bloomberg wrote. “But my love for Israel, my respect for its people, and my concern about its future are now leading me to speak out against the current government’s attempt to effectively abolish the nation’s independent judiciary.”

Bloomberg served as mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013 and was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for US president in 2020.

His remarks joined those of a growing chorus from abroad against the overhaul.

Among those who have spoken up were a group of more than 70 prominent law professors at American universities who, in January, signed onto a statement urging the Israeli government to rethink its plan.

The 78 signatories included former deans at the Harvard and Yale law schools, Martha Minow and Robert Post, along with Alan Dershowitz — a staunch Israel supporter who had already spoken out against the government’s legal proposals. Dershowitz has since repeated his insistence that the judiciary remain non-partisan.

In addition, a group of 310 economists, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Eric Maskin of the United States and Israel Prize recipient Menahem Yaari, signed a letter against the proposed overhaul, warning that it could “lead investors to flee and bring a brain drain.”

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against plans by the government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 4, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Last week, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that Europe was increasingly concerned over the plans and a group of foreign ambassadors reportedly grilled Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana with questions about the proposals.

The judicial overhaul plan has also drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts in Israel, as well as weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, and private companies.

President Herzog first issued a plea to pause the legislative blitz last month to enable dialogue between coalition and opposition on constructive judicial reform, warning that the rifts over the issue were becoming dangerous.

While Netanyahu has said he is open to dialogue, he has insisted that he will not slow efforts to advance the judicial overhaul.

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