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Israel: The 'extreme' right-wing think tank behind the judicial overhaul

The increasingly powerful Kohelet Policy Forum could also influence Israeli policies on taxation, education and the West Bank
Israelis demonstrate during "Day of Resistance" outside the headquarters of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem, 9 March 2023 (Reuters)
Israelis demonstrate outside the headquarters of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem on the 'Day of Resistance', 9 March 2023 (Reuters)
By Peggy Cidor in Jerusalem

Most of the Israeli public have been unaware of the existence of the Kohelet Policy Forum or its reach among right-wing parties, and even less of its growing influence on politicians.

Until recently, the right-wing think tank operated relatively quietly, targeting Israeli politicians whose world views were already conservative or those who were understood to be receptive to these principles.

'Kohelet Policy Forum are extreme pig capitalism, and that's what worries me now'

Yair Katz, Aerospace Industries Workers' Committee

However, in light of the political instability in Israel, and against a background of repeated election campaigns, the Jerusalem-based forum and its messages have gradually become more visible, first to the media and now to the public.

Two incidents have alerted the Israeli public to the presence of Kohelet Policy Forum and its deep activity. 

The first occurred a year ago, when Meir Rubin, executive director of the forum, tweeted: "This is where our tax money is going, to this waste", as he complained about a street cleaner who sat on a bench to rest for a moment from the heat.

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The tweet was erased shortly after, following public uproar, but that was enough for Yair Katz, chairman of the Aerospace Industries Workers' Committee, to declare: "Kohelet Policy Forum are extreme pig capitalism, and that's what worries me now."

The second event was far more significant.

Last week, Michael Sarel, chief economist of the forum, expressed his opposition to the judicial reforms promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government.

It was an astonishing statement, since Kohelet is in fact the chief architect of these reform plans, often described as a "judicial coup d'état" by opponents.

In a position paper that he says reflects his personal stance, Sarel stated that the reform could damage the separation of authorities in Israel and the holding of free elections: "If the reform causes serious damage to liberal democracy, in the medium term there will also be severe damage to the economy," he said. 

But who and what is the Kohelet Policy Forum, and what are its declared goals?

Far-reaching influence

Officially, Kohelet Policy Forum defines itself as a research institute working to ensure "the future of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, to strengthen representative democracy, expand individual freedoms and deepen the principles of the free market".

Kohelet Policy Forum is a mainly Modern Orthodox think tank funded by American Jewish billionaires Arthur Danczyk and Jeffrey Yass, the latter one of the biggest donors to the Republican Party in the US.

Kohelet is a mainly Modern Orthodox think tank funded by American Jewish billionaires Arthur Danczyk and Jeffrey Yass

Other backers include supporters of former US President Donald Trump, who have been concentrating their efforts on growing a new right-wing leadership in Israel, which combines religious Zionism with a neoliberal right-wing economic approach.

In recent years, Kohelet Policy Forum has been gaining momentum: emails from the forum are widely distributed to all government ministries.

Judges receive a series of articles from the think tank every three months. Articles written by Kohelet are published in various media. Former members of parliament Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Amir Ohana and Gideon Saar have been assisted by the think tank.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat, a Likud party member and the former mayor of Jerusalem, promoted Kohelet's plan - soon to be renamed the "Barkat Plan" - to increase the Jewish population in the occupied West Bank. 

Public opinion

Kohelet Policy Forum seeks to free Israel's economy from what it sees as the last - and harmful - remnants of socialist rule from the early days of the State of Israel.

The forum's head of education policy, Avital Ben-Shlomo, was recently given a role by Education Minister Yoav Kisch.

Kohelet’s opponents believe that Ben-Shlomo will inevitably turn the Israeli education system into an "educational market", where market forces would decide which schools deserve support, thus removing all supervision over what and how is taught in schools.

They also foresee a massive establishment of private schools funded by the state, which would weaken the public education system and goes against the essence of the free education law.

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According to the forum and its right-wing ideology, the meaning of freedom is the absence of government interference and for the rich to be taxed as little as possible.

The majority of the Israeli public do not adhere to the principles pushed by Kohelet, which include cuts in allowances for the elderly, single mothers, and the disabled, and the reduction of taxes on the rich, with the aim of widening the gap between them and the rest of the population.

The Israeli public, meanwhile, believes in a solidarity society that has joint institutions striving for a more just distribution of resources.

As the role of the forum emerged during mass protests that have filled the streets of Israeli cities in the past few weeks, so did the anger towards it, and its political and economic messages.

On what was dubbed the "Day of Resistance" across the country last week, protesters gathered in front of the forum’s offices in Jerusalem and blocked its entrance with sandbags and barbed wire.

In 2019, the forum raised 23 million shekels ($6.3m). Most of its outgoings are on wages (9.5 million shekels) and research (about 7 million shekels). It also funds a wide range of activities, including the production of articles and films - with a budget of around a million shekels per year - events and conferences.

Today, about 130 people are employed by the institute, on dozens of large projects and hundreds of small projects.

Thanks to this manpower, Knesset members admit that when they ask the forum for a position paper for a certain debate, they may receive it within a day. The entire work of the institute takes place on the cloud, so that forum employees are adapted to working remotely - even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Rival forums

Kohelet Policy Forum is not alone in operating in the political field in Israel.

A number of bodies and research institutes, from across the political spectrum, influence the Knesset and public life.

The largest is the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), whose budget in 2019 was almost 40 million shekels ($11m), with 80 percent of those funds raised overseas. But generally it presents itself as non-political.

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IDI, headed by Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker from the Kadima party, owns five research centres to promote ideas in the Knesset. In 2019, people from IDI held 178 meetings with government officials and appeared in the media 1,195 times.

Molad is perhaps the only example from the Israeli left, but its budget is one-tenth of Kohelet's and its influence is limited accordingly.

Another growing organisation is Darkenu, which intends to operate a lobby department and has already founded a media outlet, DemocraTV. In 2019 its revenues amounted to approximately 15 million shekels ($4.1m), two-thirds of which were donations from abroad. 

Meanwhile, the New Israel Fund, founded in 1979, is also backed by rich American Jews who mainly identify with the Democratic Party and the progressive currents in the US.

However, during around 30 years of activity in Israel, its focus has been on the development and support of civil society and not on contact with politicians of all currents.

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