"You’re making a mistake, Eliad,” a passerby heckled.
Dr. Eliad Shraga shrugged off the taunt. As the founder and chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, he has been dealing with such antagonism for decades.
The ginger-haired man entered the white protest tent that had been erected in the plaza outside of the High Court of Justice building. The tent was part of the movement’s fight against the controversial judicial reform that has troubled Israeli society since the beginning of the year.
To Shraga, the reform is part of an ideological movement that would strip Israel of its liberal democratic character, but also part of a broader movement of corruption that threatens to tear down the system to suit the short-term personal interests of politicians. Shraga has been fighting against corruption for 33 years. Now, he is at the forefront of the opposition to the proposed judicial reform plan.
Inside the protest tent, surrounded by a mess of placards and campaign materials, Shraga shared with The Jerusalem Post how he sees the problem, what the movement would do about it, and his personal story of how he became what he calls “the plumber of the country.”
Now married with six children, Shraga was born in Jerusalem to a family that could trace its Sabra roots in the holy city back nine generations. He served as a paratrooper in the First Lebanon War, and was part of the first wave of soldiers deployed into the country. He left the army after the war, having risen to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
Yet Shraga’s time serving the country wasn’t over. He went to the UK to serve as a bodyguard for the diplomatic mission, where he decided he wanted to endeavor to improve life and society in Israel. He determined that through studying law he could achieve this. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Tel Aviv University, and his master’s at the same institution in cooperation with University of California, Berkeley. He earned his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With a law background, he entered the world of politics as a parliamentary aide of former justice minister and Likud member Dan Meridor.
It was during his time in the Knesset that Shraga’s life took a fateful turn. It was at this time that the political scandal of the “stinking maneuver” erupted. In 1990 then-finance minister Shimon Peres attempted to undercut his unity government with former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir by forming a secret pact with Shas chairman Arye Deri to dissolve the government and to form a new government. Shraga went to protest in front of the President’s Residence, carrying a big sign about how the involved politicians had damaged the country’s morals and didn’t deserve to be Israel’s leaders.
“I thought that after two hours I would be back in my office and peacefully continue my life,” said Shraga. “Everything in life is coincidence.”
A Channel 1 crew spotted Shraga when it came to film Peres’s team submitting a coalition-forming extension request. It interviewed him for prime-time news, and what was supposed to be a short protest turned into a battle in a lifelong campaign. For three months Shraga protested, engaged in a rally of 400,000 people in Tel Aviv and took part in a hunger strike for 21 days.
“It was really something very unique,” he said.
Shraga and the protesters submitted their first petition to the High Court of Justice, which required coalition agreements from then on to be public. This was the birth of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.
MQG now boasts 70,000 members, making it one of Israel’s largest public interest organizations. It identifies itself on its website as an “independent, nonpartisan, grassroots, nonprofit organization” tackling corruption and regulatory flaws while also promoting better policy and rule of law.
Seventy-percent of its budget comes from the fees paid by 35,000 of its members. There are some private donors, but Shraga emphasized that his organization received no government or party funds. Shraga said that he doesn’t take a salary from the movement, subsisting off of his Tel Aviv law firm Eliad Shraga and Co. Law Offices.
Since Shraga’s days protesting the “stinking maneuver,” “the movement has been working in a few dimensions,” he said.
The movement has legal and economic wings. The legal department submits petitions to the High Court, develops constitutional legislation and promotes policies. The economic department addresses issues such as the Israel-Lebanon gas agreement. While these arms work as a watchdog, the civil arm works as a protest movement.
Since the judicial reform was proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the focus of much of the movement has been addressing the issue.
The problem facing Israel, as described by Shraga, is corrupt individuals taking advantage of a vulnerable government system.
“A bunch of crooked people like Deri – and others who have been indicted with ongoing cases in Israel – are willing to ruin Israeli liberal democracy to escape justice.”Eliad Shraga
“A bunch of crooked people like Deri – and others who have been indicted with ongoing cases in Israel – are willing to ruin Israeli liberal democracy to escape justice,” said Shraga. “Behind this reform stands a bunch of crooks that are ready and willing to do it, whether it’s [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who is going to the wall because of the three indictments that he’s got and the national inquiry commissions into the Meron affair and the ‘submarine affair,’ or five-star criminal Deri, [who was] convicted three times and served three years in jail and is now ready to have his revenge on the justice system.”
Shraga set them aside from Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who he alleged seek a rabbinic monarchy.
“They’re quite messianic people,” said Shraga.
These motivations led toward the reform, he said, which was possible because of Israel’s system.
“Lack of a constitution is our biggest problem,” said Shraga. He noted that it was very easy to pass or change Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. Shraga said that in the last five years the Knesset had changed the Basic Laws about 35 times. He compared this to the US Constitution, which from its 1789 drafting has had 27 amendments. “Here they can amend the constitution every day.”
One of the judicial reform bills currently in the Law Committee, being prepared for its second reading in the Knesset plenum, would restrict judicial review – the power of the court to strike down unconstitutional legislation – to items that aren’t Basic Laws. Shraga fears that this would allow the coalition to pass any Basic Law it wishes, including “dictatorial Basic Laws.” He gave the example of a law he said was being developed by religious parties, a Basic Law for Torah scholars.
“In such a situation the High Court won’t be able to strike such a Basic Law,” said Shraga.
Another amendment currently in a special committee is the so-called Deri law 2, which would prevent the High Court from interfering in ministerial appointments. A previous Basic Law: The Government amendment had allowed for Deri to take on ministerial positions despite his suspended prison sentences. The court had deemed Deri’s appointment unreasonable due to his extensive criminal past, and ordered him removed from his posts. Shraga said that with no ability to strike this impending law, and no power to interfere in administrative matters, Deri would finally be able to return to the posts.
“Every morning they come with new legislation,” said Shraga, decrying the “gifts law” that was set to be put back before the Knesset plenum. The bill would allow public servants, including the prime minister, to receive donations for legal and medical expenses.
This came “after we knocked him down three months ago,” said Shraga. “Three months ago the High Court delivered a verdict that forced Mr. Netanyahu to return a $270,000 donation from his cousin,” as well as a suit and jewelry for his wife. Shraga said Netanyahu requested a 100-day extension before returning the money, a period during which his coalition drafted the gift law.
“If the law stops him, he will change the law,” said Shraga.
Shraga noted that three years ago MQG petitioned the court to bar a person with three indictments from becoming prime minister. The movement argued that Netanyahu was not fit morally or institutionally to serve in Israel’s highest office.
“We warned them that he would ruin the system,” said Shraga.
The petition was denied, and Netanyahu was allowed to serve as prime minister with the condition of a conflict of interest agreement for his ongoing corruption trials. Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara has stated that the deal is still in effect, and that the embattled prime minister is prohibited from involving himself in the judicial reform. Part of the agreement was that Netanyahu would be unable to engage with the appointments of law and judicial officials.
“Even though he’s not allowed to deal with the reform, he’s sitting behind it as a conductor instructing his people,” said Shraga.
The same bill that would restrict judicial review on Basic Laws also would change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee. Shraga said that the coalition wants to nominate a new High Court president to use his power to stop the Netanyahu corruption trials.
“Once the executive branch will control the Knesset and judiciary we will turn into a dictatorship.”Eliad Shraga
“Once the executive branch will control the Knesset and judiciary we will turn into a dictatorship,” Shraga warned.
What are Shraga's concerns about Israeli judicial reform?
SHRAGA’S CONCERNS about the laws being weighed in the Knesset are why he and his movement are protesting. He said that they are trying to warn the public and create awareness. With enough public pressure, perhaps the coalition would stop the reform. But Shraga considers the probability of this low, as he said that there is enough motivation among politicians to escape justice that they would ignore the public.
Acts like the establishment of the protest tent serve another purpose. He said it is to give strength to the High Court to do what it must – strike down the reform legislation.
“If they [the coalition] won’t negotiate with us, we will accelerate the protest,” said Shraga.
Negotiation is the other path to solve the crisis. There have been multiple initiatives to have the two sides meet, but all have stalled on the point of the precondition that the coalition cease all legislative activity.
“You can’t negotiate on one hand and continue to legislate on the other. It doesn’t work,” said Shraga.“If you really want to talk, you need to come motivated to the table.”
Shraga said that it isn’t too much to ask to stop legislation for 24 hours or 24 minutes to take the time to talk. If one of the opposition leaders were to start to negotiate without suspension of legislation, it would create pressure that could lead to a compromise and a subsequent constitutional crisis that Israel would regret for a generation, he said.
The current negotiation frameworks are flawed, according to Shraga. President Isaac Herzog’s mid-February five-point negotiation framework, in his eyes, adopted the reformist outline.
“We’re starting to negotiate from the Dead Sea rather than the Hermon. You’re starting so low that you have nowhere to go,” Shraga quipped.
The protest leader said that while politicians are often willing to compromise to keep their positions of power, “We are not prepared to compromise on values and rule of law.”
While the situation, as framed by Shraga, is bleak, he still believes that the Movement for Quality Government in Israel and other opposition could make a difference. One couldn’t work in this field without optimism.
“I’ve been the plumber for the country for the last 33 years,” said Shraga.
Corruption is a stinking business, and he has been knee-deep in it for years. As the leaks in the system continue to raise the level of the water, Shraga holds on to a resolve-hardening thought.
“Only 75 years ago the Jewish people went from the Holocaust and prayed for a little tiny country where they could live as Jews. And ever since then we’ve been doing our best to ruin this dream,” laughed Shraga. “I’m not ready to give up on the dream to have a lovely, tiny, moral, democratic liberal country. And I will fight for it.”