An American billionaire says he’ll stop funding the think tank behind Israel’s judicial overhaul

JERUSALEM (AP) — An American billionaire and major donor to a Jerusalem think tank backing the Israeli government’s divisive judicial overhaul said on Friday that he would stop giving to the conservative group.

The decision by Arthur Dantchik, a 65-year-old libertarian multibillionaire from New York, to cut funding to the Kohelet Policy Forum reflects the scope of the unrelenting protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to weaken the Supreme Court.

“I believe what is most critical at this time is for Israel to focus on healing and national unity,” Dantchik said in a statement shared with The Associated Press announcing his move to halt funding. “Throughout my life, I have supported a diverse array of organizations that promote individual liberties and economic freedoms for all people.”

The protests have raged in Israel for seven months, exposing deep-seated social tensions and thrusting the country into a crisis over the future of its democracy.

The Kohelet Policy Forum, founded in 2012 by American-Israeli computer scientist Moshe Koppel, has emerged as one of the main architects of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul package.

Kohelet declined to comment specifically on Dantchik, saying only that the donations it receives “are broad-based and increasing steadily.”

Israeli media has reported Kohelet has been involved in negotiations over the overhaul plans. The changes would give the government more control over the selection of judges and make it harder for the Supreme Court to strike down laws. At one point earlier this year, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party said the think tank even provided the government with the same overhaul proposal that it presented to Israel’s parliament.

The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, passed first major measure in the judicial overhaul last month, unleashing widespread unrest among critics who fear it will blunt one of Israel’s few checks on government overreach and erode its democratic institutions. Supporters of the plan, including Kohelet, claim it will boost democracy by giving the elected government more power than unelected judges.

Dantchik’s announcement Friday also drew attention to the powerful influence American money and ideas have on Israeli politics. In 2021, the Haaretz daily first identified Dantchik as one of Kohelet’s two principal financial supporters in an investigation that revealed a maze of opaque third-party groups in the United States through which Dantchik and others channeled their donations.

Kohelet is not required to disclose its donations, and the exact amount that Dantchik has provided over the years is not publicly known.

As the co-founder of Susquehanna International Group, a powerful privately held financial firm in Pennsylvania, Dantchik is worth $7.3 billion, according to Forbes’ latest tally.

Kohelet’s founder, Koppel, keeps a low profile and long has avoided questions about the think tank’s donors.

Despite its support from some American Jewish businessmen, the turmoil over the judicial changes in Israel threatens to strain ties with Israel’s closet ally. President Joe Biden has publicly criticized Netanyahu’s push to overhaul the judiciary. Liberal Jewish organizations in the U.S. have condemned the legislation.

In his statement on Kohelet, Dantchik warned against the widening rifts in Israeli society that the overhaul plan has highlighted.

“When a society becomes dangerously fragmented, people must come together to preserve democracy,” he said.

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