The Right-wing Think Tank That Quietly 'Runs the Knesset'

Under the radar, the Kohelet Policy Forum, officially a nongovernmental organization, has become one of the strongest and most influential bodies in Israeli politics

Attorney Meir Rubin.
Emil Salman

They advise members of Knesset and ministers, attend Knesset committee meetings, sit at conferences, write policy papers, publish newspaper articles and petition the High Court. Meet the Kohelet Policy Forum.

Quietly, under the radar, this research institute, officially a nongovernmental organization, has become one of the strongest and most influential bodies in Israeli politics. Kohelet’s fingerprints are visible in every explosive and divisive issue that has weakened the legal system and regulation, from the nation-state law through personal political appointments of senior professional positions to the override clause (that would let the Knesset reenact laws overturned by the High Court of Justice).

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The chairman of the Kohelet Forum, which was established in 2012, is Prof. Moshe Koppel, who teaches computer science at Bar-Ilan University. Executive Director Meir Rubin (Neria), however, is considered the man behind the organization’s success. In the past two years he has become a familiar face in the Knesset among lobbyists, parliamentary advisers, MKs and ministers. Someone who met him recently says that Rubin boasted to him that “We run the Knesset” (Rubin claims that he doesn’t remember saying such a thing).

Rubin is a very ideological man, with the skills of a political wheeler-dealer. He began his political career as the parliamentary adviser of Minister Zeev Elkin from the Likud political party, and later served as the legislation coordinator for the Likud. He graduated from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem with a bachelor’s degree in law and economics and a master’s degree in public and international law, and interned in the Gornitzky and Co law firm.

He has worked at Kohelet since its inception, back when there were only six employees. At the time, he exploited his Likud connections in order to reach ministers and MKs. Today, when the organization employs about 70 people, Rubin and his staff are far more entrenched in the political arena, mainly on the right.

The Kohelet Forum was founded as a think tank for the political and economic right, a counterweight to the liberal Israel Democracy Institute. And in fact, slowly but surely, the Forum seems to have accumulated status and power, particularly in the current government. Its influence is now greater than that of the IDI.

Kohelet focuses its work on the legal and economic sphere. As part of their “Governability” project, they are trying to weaken the legal system in general, and regulation in particular; their “Individual Liberty” portfolio strives towards the libertarian causes of minimizing government intervention and promoting free-market economy. In religious Zionist circles Kohelet therefore gets considerable flak, as the Forum and the leaders of Habayit Hayehudi political party are seen as having “forgotten” concepts such as the welfare state and concern for the weak. In the Knesset, some compare their views to those of the Trumpian branch of the Republican Party in the United States.

The Kohelet Forum’s main project is in the field of law and government. In Kohelet they believe that the professional echelon in parliament and in the government should be totally subordinate to the elected leadership, as is the case in the United States. This in spite of Israel’s experience, which shows that politicization in the Civil Service can cause considerable damage.

“Today, policy is decided by legal advisers, something that undermines governability,” says Dr. Michael Sarel, former chief economist in the Finance Ministry who now heads the Kohelet Economic Forum. “The overregulation undermines competition. I’m in favor of government intervention when it’s related to equality of opportunity and to providing high-quality public services.”

Kohelet believes the professional echelon in parliament and in the government should be totally subordinate to the elected leadership, as is the case in the United States.
Emil Salman

An example of the Forum’s fight for the subordination of the professional echelon is their struggle for personal political appointments of legal advisers and deputy director generals in governmental offices ministries. Ministries’ director generals have always been personal political appointments, but as part of the attempt to expand political influence over the professional echelon, Kohelet has pushed to have their deputies appointed politically as well. In July 2015, the forum published a position paper entitled “Appointments and Governability in Israel” that recommended that ministers should be able to appoint two senior professional advisers or two senior directors in each ministry.

They also recommended that every minister should be able to personally appoint their ministry’s legal adviser. “Ministers in Israel lack the tools to run the ministries and to examine the policy implemented by senior officials,” the authors argued. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and others have tried to pass measures to this effect in the past year. For now, they have yet to succeed.

The nation-state law is another important aspect of Kohelet’s activity. The Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, also known as the nation-state law, was approved by the Knesset on July 19 and affirmed that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel. It also downgraded Arabic to a language with “special status.” The law permits judges to give priority to Israel’s Jewish character in their rulings.

Although the law was under discussion in the government even before Kohelet was around (it was first initiated by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, then headed by Israel Harel), Kohelet’s members are considered responsible for pushing the bill forward in the past year and insisting on specific wording.

“Originally, when it was in Israel Harel’s hands, there was room for negotiation in the discussions,” says someone who was a witness to the legislative process. “At the time, for example, some people were willing to settle for the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence as the nation-state law itself. But when the Kohelet Forum arrived, the entire discussion went to a more extreme place that emphasized the supremacy of the Jewish people.”

Former Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, a Kohelet research fellow, participated in a number of Knesset discussions on the law. In media interviews he described the importance of the law as complementing the series of basic laws that form the Israeli constitution, in that it defines Israel as the state of the Jewish people. “In the nation-state law we contributed quite a lot to the discussion,” says Rubin. “Hauser had a lot to contribute regarding the meaning of Israel as a nation-state. Koppel also wrote first drafts of the law.”

Deep ties

Outwardly, Kohelet presents itself as an independent research institute without ties to any organization, whose services are available to everyone. In fact, they find a sympathetic ear in specific parts of Likud, and, above all, in Habayit Hayehudi. “They have an open door to [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett and Shaked,” said a coalition MK. “Maybe they offer their wares to everyone, but Shaked and Bennett are the purchasers.”

Shaked in particular eagerly buys into the ideas and the mind-set of the Forum. Shaked has been singled out in the political system as the person likely to succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as head of Likud (Likud activists are already gossiping about her future as the next party leader), as was also indicated by a survey that predicted 33 seats to Likud under her leadership. In such a future situation, there is no question that the influence of the Kohelet Forum would soar to new heights.

In closed discussions, Shaked admits that the Kohelet Forum is definitely a body that she listens to. Others see this too. “About three years ago I met with Rubin and suggested to him that we write a joint letter to Shaked on a subject I wanted to advance,” a strategic adviser involved in the political system told Haaretz. “He told me, ‘I don’t need letters in order to get to Ayelet. I send her a message or pick up a phone directly.”

Attorney Meir Rubin.
Emil Salman

In response, Rubin said: “I won’t comment on the relationships we have with specific elected officials, unless they attend public events. We cooperate with every minister, MK or senior official who is part of public discourse, without giving preference to anyone. Clearly there are politicians who feel more comfortable sending a text message to a Kohelet department head at 2 AM and getting a reply half an hour later. An MK who doesn’t know us will feel less comfortable doing that. Those who work with us more – know how to make more use of what we have to offer.”

Influencing the media

Another example of the long-term influence of the organization can be seen in the amendment to the film law, a move led by Culture Minister Miri Regev, which almost passed at the end of the Knesset summer session, but nose-dived after an opposition filibuster. Regev sought to carry out a reform in the approval of film budgets by changing the composition of the reviewers, increasing the representation of residents of Judea and Samaria and of the country’s periphery – which aroused considerable anger in the artistic community.

But film is only one aspect of the Kohelet Forum’s involvement in the media and freedom of expression. For instance, in 2015 the Forum submitted a document to the committee in charge of the official Knesset Channel that broadcasts Knesset hearings. In the position paper, they aligned themselves with the politicians on the committee who wanted the Knesset Channel to be subordinate to them by recommending, indirectly, that the Channel be transferred to the control of Channel 20. Channel 20, founded in 2014, has become a right-wing channel for current affairs that expresses clear support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite its low ratings, Kohelet effectively supported its bid to run the Knesset broadcasts in an attempt to secure another outlet for their ideology.

In addition, in 2014 the Kohelet Forum published a policy paper on the Army Radio. They suggested introducing a greater variety of viewpoints among the station’s broadcasters and considering changes in the team presenting the main programs. Some of their recommendations have in fact taken effect in recent years after increasing criticism of Army Radio from the right.

Follow the money

Kohelet Chairman Koppel is also a member of the board of directors of the Tikvah Fund, which is one of Kohelet’s donors. The Tikvah Fund was established by the late Jewish philanthropist Zalman Bernstein whose widow, Mem Bernstein, has replaced him on the board of directors.

Avi Chai received its assets from Bernstein and his estate.

Tikvah also donates to a series of right-wing organizations, including news and intellectual website Mida, the Movement for Governability and Democracy, and organizations connected to the settlements.

Tikvah Fund’s chairman is Roger Hertog, who in the past contributed to Netanyahu and to Likud Minister Yuval Steinitz. The Tikvah Fund is the publisher of the journal Hashiloach, which published an article by Shaked several years ago titled “The Path to Democracy and Governance.” In this article, she spelled out her vision for the changes needed, in her view, in Israel’s legal system.

Other donors to the Kohelet Forum include the Central Fund of Israel, which is run by Marcus Brothers Fabric in the United States. One of the family members, Itamar Marcus, established the right-wing research institute Palestinian Media Watch. Another donor is American businessman Myron Zimmerman, who gives through the MZ Foundation, located in San Francisco. Zimmerman also contributed to Shaked’s campaign before the 2015 election. The Friedberg Charitable Foundation in Canada is another donor.

However, Kohelet’s main donor remains anonymous, and sends donations via an American nonprofit organization called American Friends of Kohelet Policy Forum. In 2016 he donated about 7.8 million shekels ($2.1 million), and a year later, about 28.5 million (part of which, according to the NGO’s report, was designated for activity in 2018). In addition, there may be small donors who also send money via the friends of the Kohelet Forum organization.

In the political establishment, many people are outraged that an organization that seeks to influence central processes within Israeli politics operates without transparency, concealing the identity of its principal donor. Recently, the Financial Justice NGO examined the possibility of cooperating with Kohelet in connection with a project related to regulation of the banks, but ended up pulling out due to the lack of transparency. “This is an organization with a large budget, the public deserves to know who the donor is,” explains Barak Gonen, the head of Financial Justice. “I have no problem with Kohelet having donors, including people from the right, but it’s very disturbing that large sums of money are being channeled for the purpose of influencing our politics and our economy, and the general public has absolutely no idea where the money is coming from.”

A substantial part of the money is used for salaries for the employees, most of whom are legal scholars and economists who write policy papers in the Forum’s spacious offices in Jerusalem. The salaries are high, certainly relative to other NGOs and research institutes in the field of the social sciences.

This article was updated on October 5, 2018 to clarify that Avi Chai does not receive funding from Tikvah, but that it received its assets from Bernstein and his estate.