Think tank behind judicial reforms calls for negotiations

"We found that with regard to many issues, the gaps could be bridged," the Kohelet Policy Forum said.

Prof. Moshe Koppel, chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, speaks at a conference at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, Oct. 24, 2017. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Prof. Moshe Koppel, chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, speaks at a conference at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, Oct. 24, 2017. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.

A conservative think tank that is credited with playing a key role in drafting the Israeli government’s judicial reform legislation called for negotiations between the sides on Wednesday.

“It is very important to achieve a broad consensus regarding the required changes,” the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that espouses representative democracy, individual liberty and free-market principles, said.

The form praised the efforts of President Isaac Herzog and “additional attempts made to reach a compromise.”

“Immediately after the Minister of Justice [Yariv Levin] announced the reform, we began talks with colleagues who oppose it, in an attempt to reach agreements and compromises. We did this in the belief that such reform should be passed with the widest possible support,” the forum said.

“We found that with regard to many issues, the gaps could be bridged: for example, the manner in which the Supreme Court would be empowered to invalidate ordinary legislation, as well as the use of the ‘reasonableness’ standard and the status of the attorney general’s opinion,” Kohelet said.

“It is also possible to reach an agreement on abandonment of the ‘override clause,’ while finding alternative solutions to specific problems it was meant to address,” the group added.

The “override clause,” a proposed amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, passed its first reading by a vote of 61-52 on Tuesday. It would grant the Knesset the power to re-legislate laws that have been struck down by the court as “unconstitutional.”

Moshe Koppel, chairman of Kohelet,  has previously expressed reservations about that aspect of the legislation, telling JNS that the override clause is the “most controversial part” of the reform. “It is in fact an unusual thing, and it is the thing in this law that frightens people the most,” he said.

“You can imagine the government, the Knesset, passing some crazy law, and then the judges would say, ‘That really is crazy.’ Sometimes the judges are right [though] it’s unusual,” he said. “And then they strike something down and the Knesset can come back with 61 [votes] and…override it and it scares people.”

Koppel had said some part of the override might be removed, or tempered, in negotiations with the opposition.

The group’s statement on Wednesday underscored the need to come to an agreement.

“Our hope is that a good compromise will help to heal the public atmosphere. Our hope is that the reform will allow progress towards the adoption of a consensual constitution for the State of Israel, which will include a comprehensive Bill of Rights.

“We respect other opinions and legitimate protest. At the same time, we denounce irresponsible behavior that harms the strength and prosperity of the State of Israel, the cohesion of the security forces and the possibility of building a good, shared future for all parts of Israeli society,” Kohelet added.

Israel’s opposition has shown little taste for bridging the gaps, having taken to the streets for the past 10 weeks in Saturday night protests, which have expanded into “days of disruption” in which activists have blocked traffic.

In one case, protesters prevented the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu. from leaving a hair salon in Tel Aviv. They have also attempted to prevent Knesset members from leaving their homes to attend parliament. Major opposition leaders have fueled the protests, claiming judicial reform spells the end of Israeli democracy.

While architects of the judicial reform program have responded positively to overtures for dialogue, opposition leaders say they won’t come to the negotiating table unless the legislative process is halted.

“From the very first day we said we were in favor of a dialogue in an attempt to reach an understanding on the reform and at least to reduce the controversy,” reform leaders said in a joint statement earlier this month.  “We respond to the call for talks without preconditions and call on others in the opposition to respond to the initiative and attend talks.”

Avi Bell, an Israeli professor of law at the University of San Diego School of Law and at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law in Ramat Gan, told JNS: “Judicial reform is imperative in order to rescue Israeli democracy from the unchecked powers of what has become a judicial aristocracy. But every democratic process, including the adoption of judicial reform, necessarily involves compromises to build a stable majority consensus.

“Reform opponents’ refusal to negotiate towards a compromise formulation on judicial reform, like their demagoguery and scorched earth tactics, show that their aim is political chaos,” he added.

The Kohelet Policy Forum has come under fire from protesters. Signs have appeared at protests condemning the group. Last week, protesters put barbed wire in front of the door of the think tank’s Jerusalem offices to prevent its staff from reaching their desks.

There have been calls by IDF reservists to refuse to report to duty and announcements by several high-tech executives that they intend to pull their business out of Israel.

Aybee Binyamin, a radio broadcaster and social activist who is a member of opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, tweeted on March 6, “The protest is progressing on several axes.

“The central axis is the Saturday-night demonstrations. The sub-axis is the ‘days of disruption’ and daily demonstrations. The second axis is the crushing of the economy. The third axis is the crushing of the [Israel Defense Forces] reserves. The fourth axis and the one that will deal the knockout blow is international isolation from democratic countries in general and European Union and United States sanctions in particular! Together we will win!” Binyamin wrote.

Bell, who is also a senior fellow at Kohelet, said, “Unfortunately, these extremist tactics endanger the rule of law and Israeli democracy as well as individual liberties and state security, and the price of opponents’ extremism is borne by the entire country,”

“It’s time for opponents to judicial reform to stop crying crocodile tears for the Israeli democracy they are trying to destroy, and instead start participating in it.”

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