Interview'Once a society's moral backbone is rotten, it collapses'

Israel’s descent into corruption as seen by Eliad Shraga, ‘national plumber’

Years ago, a mere whiff of wrongdoing could shame top Israelis into suicide. Today, says the head of the Movement for Quality Government, if you’re investigated, you’re a celebrity

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Attorney Eliad Shraga of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, pictured during a 2016 Supreme Court hearing on the drafting of  ultra-Orthodox youth (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney Eliad Shraga of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, pictured during a 2016 Supreme Court hearing on the drafting of ultra-Orthodox youth (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawyer Eliad Shraga has run the Movement for Quality Government in Israel — a nonprofit dedicated principally to fighting corruption in government — for almost 30 years.

Via relentless legal battles, Shraga’s movement has protected whistleblowers, exposed local government corruption, blocked corrupt real estate deals, highlighted misuse of government funding, battled against the non-conscription of ultra-Orthodox youth, thwarted the forgiving of vast debts owed by corrupt tycoons, bolstered the right to hold public demonstrations, and pushed for the investigation of alleged corruption at the very top of Israeli government — notably, of late, in the so-called Case 3000 German submarine affair.

For his troubles, Shraga is routinely vilified by many of his targets, and relentlessly drawn into libel fights.

“Sometimes we feel like the Little Dutch Boy,” his organization’s website acknowledges. Or, as Shraga puts it in this interview, “it’s a lousy job being the national plumber.”

Interviewed recently in his Tel Aviv office, Shraga exudes both frustration and determination — conveying the impossible contradiction that he’s both fighting a losing battle and won’t stop until it has been won. He speaks super-fast, railing in all directions, and nobody, but nobody, gets off lightly. (What follows is an edited transcript of the Hebrew conversation.)

The Times of Israel: To what extent should we be worried about the level of corruption in the country overall? And what areas do you see as being the most problematic?

Eliad Shraga: I don’t sleep at night. We have been in the business of fighting corruption for 28 years, and it has gotten worse. The cancer of corruption has spread everywhere — into the most intimate places of the State of Israel, even into the IDF with the submarine affair. Everywhere. Look how many mayors, MKs, ministers, presidents, prime ministers [have been caught up in it]. It’s all about money. You can’t say there is one clean, untainted sphere.

There is a good reason why I demonstrate every Shabbat [against government corruption], and appeal to the Supreme Court so often. There is a good reason why the media besmirches me and why I have to sue for libel so often. It is a war of life and death. As soon as you try to treat this disease with a few drops of chemotherapy, everyone immediately goes berserk.

Look what went on with me (Hebrew link) when I said that an “invisible hand” wrote a letter that enabled the Germans to sell sophisticated submarines to the Egyptians. The whole country was up in arms about this. And all I did was tell the truth: An “invisible hand” — that the head of the Israel naval forces does not know about, that the chief of staff doesn’t know about, that the defense minister doesn’t know about. And that the president doesn’t know about — because like an idiot, [President Rivlin] asked [German Chancellor] Merkel, How come you are selling submarines [to Egypt]? And she replied that there was a letter [from Israel approving the deal]!

Movement for Quality Government founder Eliad Shraga at a press conference in a protest tent in Sacher Park, Jerusalem, June 4, 2017, built by parents of young cancer patients in the closure-threatened Hema-ontology department in Hadassah hospital (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Do you understand what is happening? People are prepared to sell out the country’s security for a few dollars. This is unbelievable. When you see where these things reach, you understand, unfortunately, that the country is sick.

You see this corruption in every area, including the judicial hierarchy?

No. Judges are not corrupt. But you can see how judges are chosen in this country. You see what people are willing to do, and how they are willing to do it, and what relationships and dealings go on, and what cheap politics goes on in the selection of judges. It seeps through, and tomorrow morning you will see that if the phenomenon is not stopped, then someone will be prepared to lobby and pay money in his efforts to be appointed as a district court judge.

But we have not reached that stage yet?

Not yet, but who knows. Corruption is exponential. It has sunk deep and has become built into Israeli society. And what is more serious is that corruption has become perceived as [merely] a social crime. You are corrupt? That is fine.

Attorney Eliad Shraga of the Movement for Quality Government, outside a courtroom at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014. The Movemen filed a petition against appointments made by the then deputy foreign minister, Tzachi Hanegbi (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Forty years ago here in Israel, if a person was even at the early stages of being investigated for corruption, he might take his own life. This is what happened to Avraham Ofer in 1977. The investigation had barely started, and no one wanted anything to do with him. What happened to [Michael] Albin, to Yaakov Levinson – they had just begun to be investigated and they immediately took their own lives.

Nowadays, if you haven’t been called in for investigation or if you haven’t been indicted, you cannot be a public representative. Nowadays, you are a celebrity. Aryeh Deri, the convicted criminal, returned as minister of interior in the State of Israel! Even in Nigeria this is unheard of. A convicted criminal returns to be a minister.

And where are the police in all this?

What can they do? They investigate. But [in Deri’s case] the law that was passed by the Knesset allowed for a convicted criminal to return to the Knesset after seven years. So he returns, because people elect him. How can that be?

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri arrives for the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky)

Look what happens now if you just say something to a woman. Even without an indictment you are finished, you are a dead man. And that is a good thing. But on the other hand, corruption-related crimes [are not treated with the necessary gravity]. When a society gives legitimacy to corruption, then it does not function.

Again, where are the police?

They are doing their best.

You really think so?

Well, it’s all relative. They investigate many people, including prime ministers and presidents.

They investigate what gets to the headlines.

There are people who do not want a strong force. It doesn’t receive the funding it needs. Look what Bibi [Netanyahu] is doing to the head of the police [Roni Alsheich]. They already told him, We will not extend your tenure. They can always decide when to give more funding and when to give less.

Police chief Roni Alsheich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

You ask why there is inadequate law enforcement. The issue of forex and binary options, for example, is so complicated that you really need a sophisticated apparatus to fight it. You have to set up a system and have some enforcement. You need people of a different caliber to fight cybercrime.

From what you know, the police do not have such people?

Look, they are trying to fight it. I know they set up a cyber unit. But they are not at the level of the Mossad or Shin Bet, even though they understand that the whole world has begun fighting cybercrime and there are national agencies who deal with it. I cannot tell you that they are experts in forex crime. I am not even sure if the Israel Securities Authority knows enough about it.

Even if the head of the ISA understands this issue and is prepared to fight it, and the ISA is considered a leading authority with the top experts in this field, it is complicated. I know this because the commercial department in my organization prepared a report on forex.

It’s not so complicated, but it does require effort.

With the police, it’s a question of resources.

When you look, globally and historically, are there other countries that went though the same process of a decline into corruption? What precedents should we be looking at to see the warning signs?

I’ve just written a new book about corruption whistleblowers, and the first chapters are about the historical lessons. When you analyze what happened to the Roman empire or the Ottoman empire or the Persian empire or even the Soviet empire – in the end empires crumble not because of world wars or economic crises, they collapse when their moral foundation becomes rotten. Look what happened to the Soviet Bloc in 1989. It collapsed overnight, this empire which had posed an existential threat to us. It collapsed because Communism had become so corrupt it simply disintegrated within itself. And this is what happens to even the strongest empires.

Boris Yeltsin stands on a tank in front of the Russian parliament building as he calls for the people to resist a coup which had ousted Mikhail Gorbachev amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, May 3, 1996. (AP).

Once your moral backbone is rotten, you collapse. And that is why I am so worried, because that is what happening here. We are getting rid of the moral fiber of this country. Bibi – and this is not a partisan political statement – is unraveling the solidarity in Israeli society. This is a technique to rule over the masses. You make divisions between left and right, between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, between Jews and Arabs. You open the schisms in society and unravel the fabric.

Recently, in an Israel TV interview, I had to explain that I have a Moroccan grandmother so therefore I am not a racist. Because I have Moroccan blood. I am a reservist commander in the paratroopers. Why should I have to explain that I have legitimacy to be here, in this country? They want to label me as an Ashkenazi. What good fortune that I have a Moroccan grandmother, so I can tell them to stop accusing me of being an Ashkenazi. But if they don’t like what I am saying, they immediately accuse me of being an elitist and patronizing Ashkenazi, of being left-wing. That’s how it is, and this ethnic hatred wasn’t always here. It’s a sign, an indication.

You are pointing a finger directly at Netanyahu. (Shraga’s movement has urged the prime minister to temporarily suspend himself from office until the attorney general decides whether to charge him in one or more of the corruption cases against him.)

Bibi is not the problem. I am talking about one of the problems. I look at signs of a society which is collapsing. We may be building large buildings and roads and “our economic situation has never been better.” That is all nice and true, but.

When I returned from the Second Lebanon War, we went on a hunger strike to demand a commission of inquiry concerning [prime minister] Olmert. Do you remember? We sat in Jerusalem opposite the Supreme Court because we wanted a commission of inquiry. You see the difference between the First Lebanon War [which was thoroughly investigated] and the Second Lebanon War.

Soldiers evacuating a wounded comrade during the Second Lebanon War, on July 24, 2006 (photo credit: Haim Azoulay/ Flash 90)

There is no longer a belief that our path is just. Solidarity is unraveling and corruption is on the rise. When you look at the big picture — not just corruption — of all the indicators which are the moral backbone of a society, you see we have a very big problem here.

Our attitude to Diaspora Jewry is another case in point, another unraveling. This sectoriality, the fact that the Orthodox say: we do not accept the Reform and Conservative Jews. That’s outrageous. What remained of the Jewish people after the Holocaust? Haven’t you learnt anything? There are now 14 million Jews and you want to take 6-7 million of these Jews and abandon them. This is what they are doing.

Do you know what hard feelings American Jewry has about what is happening here? The [Orthodox] think they have sole rights to the Western Wall. They are fools. It belongs to all Jews. American Jewry is so angry about what is happening here.

Is the political leadership a lost cause? Or are there some good people out there?

People are always asking me what will happen after Bibi has gone. I tell them: Churchill left and England remained, because other good people came afterwards. Here too, there are good people. There are flowers who don’t want to blossom because there is such a strong shadow over them. But I am convinced that others will come. After Ben-Gurion left, it was the same pattern. And look who came after him? Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin. There are good people in every place.

Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol, center, and future prime minister Menachem Begin, right, greet troops in the Sinai Peninsula following the Six Day War on June 13, 1967. (GPO)

This is what has kept me doing what I have been doing for the past 30 years. I made sacrifices to wade through all this garbage. It’s a lousy job being the national plumber. No one wants to take over from me because all day long I am arguing with these awful people. I couldn’t do it if I weren’t an optimistic person by nature, and if I didn’t believe that we have a wonderful country, with more good people per square meter than anywhere else in the world.

But they simply won’t touch the political system with a ten-foot pole. I speak to senior army officers, with professors, with all my friends. They won’t consider going into politics. I imagine that when the time is right, good people will consider going into politics. There has to be a process of cleaning up and correction.

It’s a question of setting a personal example – what messages you give out, what you say, what you don’t say, how you behave. It all filters down. The situation is not good, to say the least, but we have to be optimistic because we don’t have any other country.

In the Netanyahu graft investigations, do you trust Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to reach the necessary and correct decisions based on the evidence? Is he capable? Is the hierarchy reliable?

We appealed to the Supreme Court against Mandelblit’s appointment. I do not think that someone who was the cabinet secretary and worked directly in tandem with Bibi for four years can be an unbiased attorney general. Even in paradise, an angel couldn’t do it. If I were to work with you for four years, side by side, it would be very difficult to indict you.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a Knesset event honoring Israel’s police force, January 5, 2018. (Yitzhak Harari/Knesset)

This is Mandelblit’s moment of truth. There have been all kinds of indications that he stopped the police on many issues. I had to take him to the Supreme Court three times, to ensure that he began the investigation into Case 1000. In Case 2000, we went to court twice… We’ll know quite soon if Mandelblit will be courageous enough and honest enough.

What do you think of Hebrew media?

So much of the media here has been ruled by the tycoons. You don’t make money in the media. But the tycoons are prepared to lose big money just so that they have this “doomsday weapon” — able to write whatever they want, to threaten any regulator.

Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government and Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar convene a press conference on the release of a halachic ruling by Amar that obligates tycoons to take responsibility for their financial failures and not make the public pay for them, Jan. 16, 2013. (Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

Take the example of Eliezer Fishman. He poured so much money into Globes and Yedioth. He was prepared to lose a billion shekels on these two newspapers so long as no one would see that he took 15 [billion] on the other side. Understand how the country works: The banks don’t want to touch Fishman, the regulator doesn’t want to go near him, and the politicians suck up to him. That’s how it works.

Businessman Eliezer Fishman, seen in court in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2017. (Flash90)

Each tycoon has a media holding. Except for ToI, or Haaretz which is barely surviving. If you want to rule, get a mogul to buy a newspaper like Israel Hayom and everything is fine. This is the media now — very biased, very often it does not reflect reality.

Our good fortune now is social media, where you can write your truth.

If you have media holdings, then no one will write about your financial activities, your banks, your investment houses, your forex. No one will investigate you; you can do what you want.

Happily, now, some of this is falling apart, both because of social media and because we managed to reduce and thin out their pyramids. Now, they can only have 2.5 layers, not 17.

But the new generation of tycoons are people like [Bezeq’s Shaul] Elovitch [a key suspect in the so-called Case 4000 corruption investigation]. They all used monopolies and concentration of ownership, and damaged the entire country by pushing up the cost of living.

The media protected the tycoons, the politicians were frightened of the media and shut up, and so did the regulators. It’s an entire ecosystem of corruption.

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