Nobel laureate on judicial plans: ‘Not the Israel I want my grandkids to grow up in’

Economist Daniel Kahneman says overhaul marks ‘end of Israeli democracy,’ warns that in addition to financial harm, it will further isolate nation in academic world

Israeli-American winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, Professor Daniel Kahneman, at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem. June 20, 2013 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israeli-American winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, Professor Daniel Kahneman, at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem. June 20, 2013 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Daniel Kahneman said the contentious planned judicial overhaul advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government signified “the end of Israeli democracy” and is turning the country into a place where he does not want to raise his offspring.

“I feel like I’m in a place I don’t know. I’m completely shocked. For me, the end of Israeli democracy is no small thing. It’s the end of a dream,” Kahneman said in an interview with The Marker published Wednesday.

“I want to believe there is hope, but… this is not the Israel I knew, that I grew up in. This is not the Israel I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in,” he said.

The Israeli psychologist and economist, who in 2002 won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, was one of hundreds of signatories to an “emergency letter” published Wednesday warning that the far-reaching judicial shakeup could have grave implications for the economy.

“I ask everyone I meet if there is room for hope, I haven’t heard anything promising. I hope the worst doesn’t happen,” Kahneman said.

The expert on decision-making said that he believed that the mass public protests against the government’s policies could have an impact, along with international pressure.

“Public pressure sometimes has results and longevity. But public pressure in Israel will not be the only thing that will happen — international pressure will increase. Some people in the government don’t care, but Israel is ostracizing itself from the world to which it belongs. This is no small thing,” he said.

Then US president Barack Obama awards Daniel Kahneman with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nov. 20, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

“Regarding the demonstrations — I guess that they will not subside. The danger is so great that the public will not remain silent,” he said.

Kahneman warned that he believed the judicial overhaul will make the country a “dictatorship masquerading as a democracy,” and noted that the US media was already giving the impression that Israel was set to join Hungary and Turkey as countries no longer considered democracies.

“A simple majority will be able to perpetuate itself forever, if for example they decide not to let Arab parties run,” he said, referring to a report Tuesday that coalition lawmakers are putting together a proposal that would change the criteria for banning candidates from running for the Knesset, making it easier to push out Arab-led parties and MKs representing some 20 percent of Israel’s population.

The psychologist and economist also said he believed the moves by the government will lead to a downgrading of Israel’s position in the academic world.

“There are already many academics who don’t participate in conferences in Israel, but they are a minority. The impact is still to come — Israel will be ostracized, like South Africa was at the time, and like in Turkey, where it is difficult to hold scientific conferences today,” he said.

The economists’ letter published Wednesday and signed by Kahneman warned the judicial overhaul could “cripple” the economy.

Among the signatories were both right- and left-leaning senior academics, including former Netanyahu economic adviser and National Economic Council head Prof. Eugene Kandel; Prof. Omer Moav, a former adviser to the finance minister; Prof. Avi Ben Bassat, a former director of the Finance Ministry; and Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, who held a string of key government positions.

Israelis protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline government that his opponents say threaten democracy and freedoms, in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

They also invoked the risk of a “brain drain” and the relocation from Israel of research and development centers, as well as the danger of a reduction in the country’s credit rating.

Their warning came the day after Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron reportedly outlined for Netanyahu the potential consequences of the proposed judicial overhaul and relayed warnings made by senior economic figures and officials from credit rating firms during his recent meetings at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Netanyahu’s meeting with Yaron came hours after hundreds of tech workers held an hour-long strike to protest the planned changes.

On Sunday, senior Bank of Israel official Prof. Moshe Hazan resigned, saying he couldn’t stay at his job “while Israeli democracy is in danger” and that he planned to take an active role in the protests against the judicial overhaul plans.

And a day earlier, former Bank of Israel governors Karnit Flug and Jacob Frenkel warned in a joint op-ed that the government’s plans for a sweeping overhaul of the country’s judiciary could negatively affect Israel’s credit rating and “deal a severe blow to the economy and its citizens.”

“The weakening of the judiciary system (…) is expected to lead to a decrease in the willingness of foreign investors to invest in Israel, and an increase in the cost of raising funds for the Israeli government as a result of a possible downgrading in the country’s credit rating,” Flug and Frenkel explained.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) said earlier this month that the judicial makeover plans, as well as the new government’s hardline policies in the West Bank, could negatively affect the country’s rating.

As presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the coalition’s proposals would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Netanyahu on Wednesday described criticism of the overhaul by experts as “irresponsible” fearmongering, claiming the plan to transfer power from the courts to politicians will strengthen the economy.

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