When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power last year, he never mentioned plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary. But a little-known Jerusalem think tank had been preparing for the moment for years.
The Kohelet Policy Forum, founded by an American Israeli and funded by a U.S. libertarian billionaire, quietly authored and helped introduce the far-reaching package of judicial changes that has sparked a national crisis and driven hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets.
Likud member Keti Shitrit, in a recent interview with Israel’s Channel 13, said Netanyahu’s party never internally discussed the judicial overhaul bills supplied by Kohelet before fast-tracking them through the parliament.
“It wasn’t us that prepared it; it was Kohelet Forum,” she said on a special TV broadcast covering the mass anti-government protests, adding that the group has been providing “materials” to right-wing politicians for years.
Kohelet is Israel’s first American-style political think tank, employing 160 researchers who proactively court like-minded politicians with free research, bills and conference invitations. The libertarian, religiously conservative group has crafted some of the most controversial legal changes in recent years, all while remaining out of the public eye. But its behind-the-scenes role in the judicial overhaul has brought the think tank newfound scrutiny and highlighted what critics say is its outsize influence on Israeli politics.
“The organization has always focused on substance and value — over generating needless headlines,” a Kohelet spokesperson told The Washington Post in a text message, declining to give a name or answer more-detailed questions about the group’s work.
The think tank has succeeded, Israeli legislative observers say, partly because of chronic understaffing in the Knesset, where ministers eagerly accept prepared research and draft bills from outside organizations.
“Its tactics were imported from [Capitol] Hill,” said an academic familiar with the group, whose Israeli students have participated in Kohelet partner fellowships and programs, which include meetings with conservative lawmakers in the United States. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his indirect affiliation with the group.
Kohelet might have continued toiling behind the scenes of legislative committees indefinitely, he said, but “they hit the jackpot with recent elections. All of the sudden, they were in.”
In a televised address to the nation, Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned of civil war as Netanyahu rejected judicial compromise.
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