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Critic of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul makes case for Israeli constitution

There's only one way out of the judicial reform fight, argues Eliad Shraga, who chairs the Movement for Quality Government: a written constitution

As tensions peaked this week, with tens of thousands of angry citizens taking to the streets to protest the passing into law of a government bill that will effectively reduce the oversight of the Supreme Court over the government, there was one man who remained oddly optimistic: Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

As the head of an independent, nonpartisan movement, Shraga believes that now – in the midst of a deep constitutional crisis over Israel’s system of government – is the perfect time to reevaluate the relationship between the branches of government and push forward a core plan for a written, or at least a formal, constitution. 

“There is no chance that things will be worked out unless we have this,” Shraga told Jewish Insider. “The demography here is very problematic and so are the external threats. If the pilots and 65% of the army reservists refuse to serve [as they are threatening to do now that this legislation was passed], it will be a catastrophe.”

Within the framework of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, Shraga has already established the Forum for a National Constitution, headed by former Supreme Court judges, lawyers, academics, health and military officials. He also hopes to create an assembly with between 70-120 representatives of Israeli society from all sectors, as well as several committees whose role will be to further solidify, clarify and adapt an existing constitutional draft into a document that will enjoy a broad consensus, he told JI.

At 64, Shraga has been at the forefront of the fight against political corruption and an advocate of better governance for some three decades. A lawyer by training, he is already well-known in the Supreme Court, submitting dozens of legal petitions a year against governmental actions he sees as bad practice or undemocratic. 

On Monday, minutes after the government passed its law removing the ability of the Supreme Court to void government decisions and official appointments it deems as “unreasonable,” Shraga — along with several other civil rights groups — petitioned the same court to have that very law canceled. On Wednesday, the court responded, saying it would not hear the various petitions until September; it did not issue an injunction blocking the law from going immediately into effect. 

“We are ready. We will appear in the Supreme Court to defend Israeli democracy, and we will do everything we can to stop the coup!” said Shraga in a statement following the Supreme Court announcement. 

He added: “We will continue to demonstrate and fight everywhere and on every stage until the threat is removed!”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition is pushing for further judicial reforms, said this week that over the next few months, while the Knesset is in summer recess, he would work together with members of the political opposition to find a broader consensus for any future changes. 

Over the past six months, Shraga has gained national recognition as one of about a dozen of the most vocal leaders of the mass protest movement pushing back against the Netanyahu government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary. They believe such changes will weaken Israel’s democracy by stripping away a vital check on the power of the executive and legislative branches, undermining human rights and leaving minority groups vulnerable.  

“People always ask me, ‘Eliad, how do you remain so optimistic?’ But I’m always optimistic because I believe that you can always make something good out of something bad, like making lemonade out of sour lemons,” Shraga told JI.

“From every breakdown, something new grows, and there is a crazy breakdown happening here right now that might even end in a civil war, but there is also a crazy opportunity,” added Shraga, who has spent countless Saturday nights over the past seven months addressing the tens of thousands of civilians who have taken to protesting the government. 

“This is a historical opportunity, it is a historical moment,” he continued. “It is a type of golden hour where after everything explodes, there is then an opportunity to make a big change.”

“When there is a breakdown there is also an opportunity, so even as I am fighting to stop this change, I also see this as an opportunity,” Shraga emphasized.

Shraga believes the current crisis will eventually lead to another round of national elections in Israel, which already held some five elections over a four-year period from 2019-22. The next round of voting, he said, will be focused on this very issue: the rule of law, human rights and the rules of the game.

“There needs to be rules here that can’t be changed every morning, as we have seen Netanyahu do,” explained Shraga. “He just wakes up every morning and changes the rules of the game. One day he wakes up and decides it’s OK to have a rotational government, the next he decides it’s OK to appoint a minister convicted of crimes, another day he decides the country can operate without a judicial appointments committee, and then he decides it’s OK to not have a ‘reasonable standards’ law.”

Unlike many other countries, Israel does not have a written constitution, nor does it have a long history of constitutional traditions and precedents; rather its entire legal system is based on a series of Basic Laws aimed at protecting human rights and other freedoms, especially those pertaining to minorities, but which can be easily changed with a clear majority, Shraga explained.

“It is a very complicated business in Israel,” he continued. “Israeli society, like all societies, is not monolithic, it is made up of different tribes. I think the genius of our founders was to create a melting pot taking people who came from some 70 different cultures and from all the corners of the globe and putting them in a mixer in order to design a new Israeli.”

“The process has worked,” Shraga said. “It succeeded in that it created a society or a conglomeration of people.”

However, the lawyer said, there has been a process in recent decades that is working to destroy that so-called “melting pot.” Movements such as those spurred by the ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, which champions North African or Sephardi Jewish identity, as well as the campaign for Russian immigrants to Israel waged by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, in the 1990s, were all an attempt to achieve political gain, said Shraga.

Netanyahu has understood this concept of cultural identity politics since first rising to power in 1992 as the chairman of the Likud party, Shraga explained. It was around that time that Netanyahu began working with American political consultant Arthur Finkelstein. Together, the two carved out a successful political strategy, Shraga said.  

“There is a method and if you look back over the last 30 years you will see it very clearly,” said Shraga, listing various tactics such as generating fear among supporters, appointing outspoken advocates to keep those supporters whipped up into a frenzy, and eventually exerting control over the media. (In 2007, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson launched Israel Hayom, a free newspaper that Israelis called the “Bibiton,” that for many years reflected and supported the policies of Netanyahu, whose nickname is Bibi.)

The events happening today, said Shraga, “are not sudden. Netanyahu has expertly taken advantage of the fact that Israel has this “weak system” of pliable laws and no written or formal constitution, he added

“[A constitution] is the only solution,” explained Shraga. “Nothing temporary, no Band-Aid or protest will help make these changes, those are just temporary. What we need is a basic solution – a series of laws that will make up a formal constitution. That is the only way.”

“This is our country,” he concluded. “It might be damaged, but it is all we have, so we have to keep on fighting for it.”

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