What do I think of the economists’ Israel petition?

It is signed by many luminaries, and it opens with this:

The governing coalition in Israel is considering an array of legislative acts that would weaken the independence of the judiciary and its power to constrain governmental actions. Numerous Israeli economists, in an open letter that some of us joined, expressed concerns that such a reform would adversely affect the Israeli economy by weakening the rule of law and thereby moving Israel in the direction of Hungary and Poland. Although we significantly vary in our views on public policy and on the challenges facing Israeli society, we all share these concerns. A strong and independent judiciary is a critical part of a system of checks and balances. Undermining it would be detrimental not only to democracy but also to economic prosperity and growth.

I would say I haven’t made up my mind on the substantive issue, as I have seen credible (not saying they are true, I don’t know) arguments that the current Israeli judiciary has too much power.  The proposed reforms still might be a badly timed and significant overreach, but my intuition is that the arguments are more complicated than this petition is making them out to be.  As economists, are they not at least obliged to tell us what the relevant trade-off is?

I also wonder if these outside voices have influence in Israeli politics, or whether they might occasion backlash.  Again, I don’t know, but I do see an argument for reserving collective petitions for very clear cut cases when the transmitted signal will be positive.  Is the binding constraint here “not having enough elite academic foreigners in opposition to Netanyahu”?

More generally and perhaps most importantly, will this petition be effective?  Many kinds of petitions should be saved up for when they will change something.  If they are not going to matter, in essence the signers are signaling their weakness rather than their strength.  They are spending down their reputational capital, rather than building it up.  And in those cases, why have the petition at all?


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