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As the country prepares for the selection of a new defense minister and president, in votes that could decide the government's fate, Israelis are more disillusioned than ever with their elected officials, according to findings released by the Israel Democracy Institute on Sunday.
"This is a very bad year for Israeli democracy, and for Israel in general," said Prof. Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the institute. "In 2003, when we found that 53 percent were dissatisfied with how democracy functions, we thought that was the lowest it could possibly go for Israel to still have a functioning democracy. Now we are at an all-time low. I wish we could say that it could go no lower, but..."
Two-thirds of Israelis are unhappy with the functioning of the country's democracy, according to the institute's 2007 Democracy Index: Cohesiveness in a Divided Society. There has been a steady decline in the public's view of government, with a 12 percentage-point drop from 2006 to 2007, according to the annual poll.
"In recent years, and especially in the months following the Second Lebanon War, the climate in Israel has become increasingly characterized by a sense of weariness and disgust with the political process in general," the researchers said. "The reasons for the decline in public morale are many and varied. In addition to the terrorism and ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, the outcome of the Second Lebanon War is worrisome to many Israelis.
"Another troubling issue is that of the disgust felt by Israelis toward what they perceive as rampant corruption. Satisfaction with the rule of law, the civil service, and the political leadership is shrinking year by year, while tensions within Israeli society continue to simmer with no hope of resolution in sight."
While a number of polls have pointed to a gradual decline in the public's faith in government and in the working of Israeli democracy, the IDI's poll is the broadest, with 1,203 interviews conducted in three languages.
The poll found that 86% believe the government is not dealing adequately with the country's problems, while 79% are "concerned" with the current situation. Trust in various state institutions has also declined, from 43% one year ago, to 21% in 2007.
Trust in the president declined from 67% to 22%, and in the Supreme Court from 68% to 61%. Smaller declines were seen in confidence in the Israel Police, IDF and Knesset.
There are a number of police investigations facing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and suspended President Moshe Katsav is defending himself against rape allegations. And half a dozen lawmakers are facing police inquiries into alleged improprieties ranging from tax evasion and bribery to political appointments.
"There is always a feeling that the current government, in terms of corruption or illegal acts, couldn't get any worse," a senior government minister said recently. "And every year the faith of the public is shaken once again by even more outrageous behavior by their politicians."
The minister said there was a general feeling that the current leadership was solely motivated by personal gain, a sentiment that was expressed in the poll's findings that 68% of people think the people running the country are motivated by personal interests rather than by the public good.
Israelis are looking for a strong leader to fix all these problems, Arian said, saying 69% believe a few strong leaders would be more useful to the state that all of the discussions held and laws passed.
"We specifically worded this statement in a very biased way so that if people chose it, they would really mean it," said Arian. "Israelis are still looking for that strong figure who can right the wrongs."
People are increasingly looking toward the media as a means to safeguard democracy; the poll saw the figure rise from 25% in 2006 to 34% this year. Overall trust in the media stayed steady, rising slightly from 44% to 45%.
A positive finding, said Arian, was that 79% of respondents were proud to be Israeli. But 79% said that relations between the rich and poor were not good, and 66% felt that the religious and secular did not get along.
Looking at Jewish-Arab relations, 87% said relations were poor or very poor, with 73% of interviewees saying that the other side had a tendency to be violent.