Analyze This: Trusting the public

Its lack of faith in politicians shows Israelis aren't stupid.

rivlin claps knesset 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rivlin claps knesset 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There was plenty of good news in the Israel Democracy Institute's annual Democracy Index: 90 percent of the public believes Israel is seriously tainted with corruption; only 17% expressed trust in the prime minister; the Knesset does better by 12 percentage points, and political parties even worse. As I said, there's plenty of good news, and the main piece of it is this: Israelis are not stupid. Their reactions to the IDI survey are pretty much what you would expect from a largely intelligent and informed public, given the behavior of must of our public servants during the past year, and that is indeed a reassuring conclusion. So is the fact that despite all of this, an overwhelming majority is still proud of this country (80%), and want to remain living here (83%), no matter what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes. What's more, rather than falling into a general cynicism about all public figures, Israelis are able to discern a good thing when it comes along - with faith in the office of the presidency more than doubling thanks to Shimon Peres replacing the scandal-ridden Moshe Katsav - and largely retain trust in a military that has genuinely worked hard to reform itself in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. In presenting the Index yesterday to President Peres, IDI director Arik Carmon expressed deep concern that "Israelis are turning their back on politics, rejecting politicians and expressing no-confidence in central institutions, to an extent that endangers Israeli politics." But that, of course, is not the danger indicated by this study. The real problem is that many of these institutions don't deserve that confidence - any more, than say when former US president Jimmy Carter famously declared that the American public was experiencing its own national "crisis of confidence" (it was, but only in his leadership of it). Much of the initial concern expressed by political figures and media pundits over the report's findings was the sharp drop - from 61% to 49% - in the public's trust in the Supreme Court. Blame for this is being laid squarely on Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's desk, as a result of his campaign to institute reforms in the court's selection and judicial processes. That's undoubtedly true - but what does it say about the way the court has responded to this effort, that Friedmann's efforts have had this kind of effect on the public's trust in it? Doesn't it also raise equally serious, and entirely legitimate questions, about the performance of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch in this dispute? Surely no government institution that acts to safeguard democracy - which the court unquestionably does - can act as if it is above the scrutiny and criticism that every organ of democratic government is expected to undergo, and expect no backlash from that. As for the notion that Israelis are "turning their back from politics," this comes from the sizable drop in those who say they are interested in the subject and regularly discuss it. It must be noted though, that these numbers are still in line, and in many cases higher, than such survey results in other developed Western societies. Of course those nations don't face the kind of existential security threats that Israel must still contend with. But it would be a mistake to confuse a justified disgust with daily politics-as-usual as practiced in the halls of the Knesset and prime minister's office, with apathy toward such pressing issues as the Iranian threat, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or possible peace efforts with Israel's other Arab nations. Rather, this may be a sign that the public no longer believes that the way these challenges will be dealt with so greatly depends on which individual or party gets chosen to sit in the Knesset and the PMO. Given this country's recent political history - the gap between campaign (and daily political) rhetoric and actions while in office; the play of regional and even global forces on our national interests; and a feeling that some of our problems can for the time being be only managed rather than solved - who is to say this represents not just growing cynicism about politics here, but a mature acceptance of its limitations. None of this means that electoral reform is any less the pressing issue that the IDI, or anyone else is seriously concerned about the future of this nation, rightly believes it to be. Or that a level of corruption, or public indifference to it that might be acceptable, or at least livable, for other countries - such as Italy - should be accepted here. The recent rise in the polls of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, fueled surely in part by (rightly or wrongly) the perception of her as an honest player, in surely one sign that the public is not in fact indifferent to the matter. Another would be the degree to which electoral reform is pushed as a priority in any upcoming campaign by those who in the past have strongly advocated it, such as Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. And of course, the actions of an individual office holder can make all the difference on the public's trust in that office. Just look at the impact Peres has had on the presidency over the course of the past year. Finally, it's worth noting that the attorney-general's office earned trust from only 36% of the public over the past year - and that in the coming months, Attorney-Genera Menahem Mazuz will surely have an opportunity to dramatically impact on those numbers, in one direction, or the other.