TEL AVIV — 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.
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, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the group’s work. They declined to answer more-detailed questions.
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.”
Netanyahu clinched a parliamentary majority in November elections, but when centrist partners boycotted his coalition over his ongoing corruption trial, he was forced to strike costly agreements with ultranationalist parties dominated by far-right settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Among them were politicians with close ties to Kohelet, which has long pushed for annexation of the West Bank — land Palestinians envision as part of a future state — and for gender segregation inside Israel. Since its founding a decade ago, the group has written dozens of position papers advocating for a weaker Supreme Court and greater religious conservatism in Israel, which it claims has been held hostage by the secular left.
Researchers say Kohelet’s activism represents a break from the past, when the ultra-Orthodox leveraged political positions to win funding for their insular communities. Now, critics fear, Orthodox politicians are pushing to remake Israel in their own image.
“It’s breaking the very delicate balance between mainstream Israel and the ultra-Orthodox who understood that they depend on a liberal, prosperous society with a strong military,” said Yofi Tirosh, a vice dean of law at Tel Aviv University and human rights activist who has faced off with Kohelet over gender-segregation laws in the courts.
The new generation of religious politicians, she said, “believe that if secular Israelis break Shabbat or aren’t careful about women’s modesty, they hamper the coming of the messiah, so they’re trying to rewrite the way Israelis live.”
Lawmaker Simcha Rothman, a West Bank settler and former far-right activist who heads the committee advancing the judicial overhaul through the Knesset, hired Shimon Nataf, a Kohelet researcher, as his legal counsel. Kohelet employees have joined members of the ruling coalition and the opposition in negotiations over the legislation at the president’s residence, according to a spokesman for the group. Without a compromise, President Isaac Herzog has warned repeatedly, Israel could be on a path to “civil war.”
Netanyahu’s coalition offered Monday to slow some aspects of the overhaul, but vowed to press ahead with the most controversial parts, including a proposal that would give the government greater control over the selection of Supreme Court judges.
Many Israelis learned about Kohelet for the first time earlier this month when soldiers and reservists opposed to the judicial legislation demonstrated outside the think tank’s Jerusalem headquarters, blocking the entrance with bags filled with fake cash and rallying under signs that read “Kohelet is tearing us apart.” But Israelis know the group’s work. It helped draft the 2018 Nation-State Law, which removed Arabic as an official language and asserted that the “right of national self-determination” in Israel “is unique to the Jewish people.”
“I must congratulate [Kohelet legal department head] Aviad Bakshi for his enormous contribution to the Nation-State Law, and also many other programs to ensure the balance between the bodies of power,” Netanyahu said last year in a video prepared by Knesset members celebrating the think tank’s 10th anniversary. Bakshi has taken credit for being a main architect of the judicial reform.
Kohelet has also helped rewrite Israeli civics textbooks, removing sections on Palestinian history and emphasizing Israel’s Jewish values over its democratic ones, Israeli educators have said.
In 2019, Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state under President Donald Trump, thanked the group for supporting a major shift in long-standing American policy toward Israeli settlements, which he said should not be viewed as, “per se, inconsistent with international law.”
Kohelet promotes libertarian ideas, but it also supports the “welfare state we established for the West Bank settlers with public funds,” Zehava Galon, former leader of the left-wing Meretz party, wrote in 2021. “It is mired in hatred of women and homosexuals, and insists on promoting the ‘family.’… All of this is imported from the rigid American Right.”
The bitter dispute over the judicial overhaul has led to growing alarm in Washington. President Biden said in a phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday that “democratic values” must remain a pillar of the U.S.-Israel relationship and that “democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances,” according to a White House readout.
Kohelet’s founder is the American Israeli Moshe Koppel, a computer scientist and Talmudic scholar who moved from New York to Israel in 1980 and now lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
He founded Kohelet in 2012 because he was worried “about freedom in Israel,” he said last March in an interview with the Jerusalem Press Club, criticizing Israel’s “legacy of socialist economics.” In a speech at the first Conference for Israeli Conservatism in 2019, he instructed activists to exert influence while “staying behind the curtains.”
“We must be steadfast about coming to decision-makers with our ideas,” he told the conference. “Once you’ve hooked one, don’t tell him it’s a good idea for you to take on this or that issue. You need to come with the text.”
Koppel has long avoided questions about Kohelet’s funders, and neither Israeli nor U.S. law requires the disclosure of donations from American charitable organizations. But one of Kohelet’s donors is Arthur Dantchik, a libertarian billionaire from New York. A 2021 investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that Dantchik’s business partner, GOP mega donor Jeff Yass, was also involved in donating tens of millions of dollars to the group through a complex web of third-party groups.
Until 2019, many of the donations came from the 501(c)(3) Friends of the Kohelet Policy Forum, based in the wealthy Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, where Yass and Dantchik run Susquehanna International Group, a trading and technology firm.
A person close to the two men, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said Dantchik has donated to Kohelet “but is not the sole funder by any means.” Yass has never been a Kohelet donor, he said. Dantchik and Yass declined to comment.
The spokesperson for Kohelet did not answer Post inquiries about who funds the organization.
In a January interview with Israel’s Channel 14, Koppel said that “there are claims that we receive funding from rich people with right-wing views, okay, but what exactly is the alternative?”
Passage of the judicial overhaul would be a landmark achievement for Kohelet and its supporters. Rothman, the lawmaker shepherding the bill through parliament, has said that weakening the courts could forge a path toward a “utopian” society.
“The Supreme Court could be a tool to minimize, not increase, conflict,” he said in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster in January. If officials have the backing of voters, he said, they should be able to enact the policies of their choosing, whether it be the expulsion of African asylum seekers from South Tel Aviv or the swearing in of government ministers with criminal convictions — two moves that the Supreme Court has struck down.
Natalie Davidson, an associate professor of law at Tel Aviv University, who has been trolled by Kohelet researchers for years on social media, said legal scholars have struggled to respond to the group, which “distorts the language of freedom and rights — liberal values that are very difficult to argue with — to discuss political issues.”
“We don’t have the luxury of letting them take over the field,” she said.
In February, Pompeo, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho) were among the prominent Republicans who gathered for a three-day conference, alongside Netanyahu, Kohelet researchers and American Jewish businessmen, at the luxury Setai Hotel in Jaffa. As Israel’s political crisis gained momentum on the streets, they spoke of “shared values and shared security.”
“When we support our friends, not only do we protect our interests,” Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) said in a keynote speech, “but we also give them the confidence to undertake reforms.”
Cate Brown in Washington contributed to this report.