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Racism, as reflected in the findings of the 2006 Israel Democracy Index, was of less concern to speakers at the Israel Democracy Institute's fourth annual conference at Beit Hanassi than the public's waning confidence in democratic institutions such as the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the police and even the presidency.
In fact, with the exception of IDI President Arye Carmon, who charged that "Israeli bullies such as Avigdor Lieberman" contribute to the decline of Arab trust in Israeli democracy, the only speaker who spoke in depth about the fact that 62 percent of Israeli Jews believe the government should encourage Arabs to leave the country, was an Arab, Dr. Faisal Azaiza, head of the Jewish-Arab Center & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Haifa.
Such an indicator, said Azaiza, was shocking to all humanists.
He was also outraged by the lethargic response of the Israeli public to anti-Arab remarks made by Lieberman, who heads Israel Beiteinu, and noted that despite the racist sentiments contained in those remarks, extreme efforts had been made to get Lieberman to join the government as a minister.
The two related issues point to a specific tendency in the Israeli public, he suggested, but he was interrupted by President Moshe Katsav. Katsav reminded conference participants that he had spoken out against Lieberman's statements and that he had raised the issue with each of the political party delegations with which he had consulted prior to appointing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to form a government.
There was a regression in the new government, said Azaiza, because there was no Arab minister to represent Arab interests.
Returning to the findings of the IDI survey, which showed that only 28% of the Israeli public oppose efforts which encourage the emigration of the Arab sector, Azaiza queried the place of the Arab population in Israeli democracy. Anti-Arab feeling had caused Arabs to converge among themselves and had spurred them to launch an election campaign in which the Arab vote went only to Arab parties, he said.
For all that, there was general consensus among both Jews and Arabs that Israel had not done enough to ensure that its Arab citizens benefit from a policy of equal rights.
"Nothing operational has been done to implement equality," he said, and wondered if Israel would ever allow an Arab to become an education minister.
With regard to education, Azaiza noted that 5000 Israeli Arabs are studying at Jordanian universities because they are unable to pass the psychometric exams that are mandatory for enrollment in Israeli institutes of higher learning.
While other speakers lamented the general decline in voter turnout during the recent Israeli elections, Azaiza acknowledged that it was for this very reason that there were 10 Arabs elected to the Knesset. If the general turnout had been considerably higher, he said, several of the current Arab MKs would not have passed the threshold.
Though concerned by the decline of public confidence in the Supreme Court and the Knesset, Carmon said that what bothered him most was the sharp drop in voter turnout. From 79% in 1999, it had fallen to 68% in 2003 and to 63.2% in 2006.
"How do we educate the public towards accepting its responsibility to participate in the elections?" he asked.
Carmon, who is one of the most persistent and outspoken advocates for a constitution, said that it was time for the Knesset to complete the necessary legislation.
"We must not forget for one moment that our democracy lacks a constitution and that without a constitution, it is deeply flawed," he stated.
Prof. Asher Arian, who headed the team that conducted the survey for the current democracy index, warned of a crisis in Israel's political culture, and said that Israel needed new leaders who could rebuild public confidence in the democratic system.
He also urged the adoption of the Norwegian Law under which any parliamentarian who becomes a minister relinquishes his seat in the Knesset to the next person in his party's list.
Democracy is something that cannot be taken for granted, said Katsav. "There are many perils confronting it and we have to protect it from harm."
Citing some of the possible hazards, Katsav listed the ongoing spread of poverty, mega inflation, and ongoing wars. As for loss of trust in the Knesset, Katsav noted the sorry situation in which "the public has asked 120 people to defend its rights, and yet this institution, more than any other, has lost public confidence."
Calling the low voter turnout "irresponsible," Katsav nonetheless stressed the need to learn why so many Israelis do not want to be part of the democratic process, especially when Israelis have the highest percentage of political awareness in the world.
Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who is a Holocaust survivor, echoed Katsav's statement that democracy cannot be taken for granted, and that no one, in thinking about democracy, should take an attitude that it can't happen here. Recalling that Hitler was democratically elected, Barak observed that anything can happen anywhere.
"There can be no democracy without human rights," he insisted. "Democracy without human rights is an empty vessel."
"You don't need an annual survey to understand that the public is losing its trust in politics, politicians and parties," said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who rushed in briefly from the Knesset and returned for the vote on the budget.
There was too much uncertainty, fear, hatred and extremism, she said, "and the more time that elapses, the more difficult it is to create an Israeli society based on a common denominator."
Former Likud MK Uzi Landau attributed his party's drastic downfall to the fact that it did not fulfill its promises with regard to the Land of Israel, its members zig-zagged too much and so many of them were found to be corrupt.
Asked by Katsav about his opinion with regard to an MK who, after the elections, changes his attitude on an issue that was part of his party platform, Landau replied: "Every politician has the right to change his mind, but then he has to go back to the electorate to get a new mandate."
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