Together with my colleagues at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), I recently had the honor of presenting President Isaac Herzog with our 2021 Democracy Index. The index can be seen as a selfie of Israeli society, as has been the case for 19 years, offering a complex picture of the Israeli public’s assessment of democracy and of its trust in their state institutions. This year’s Index reveals a large-scale crisis of trust in almost all public institutions, including the largely apolitical institutions that until recently enjoyed consistently high levels of public trust. At the same time, analysis of the findings provides a road map forward for Israeli policymakers who do not accept this reality and are seeking to improve the current situation.
Israel is now emerging, we hope, from one of the longest and severest crises in its history. Though the pandemic has yet to abate, the last six months have given hope that the country’s political and constitutional crises are now behind us. Regardless of one’s opinion of the current government, the previous situation – a cycle of repeated elections while a transitional government remained in power without the support of the Knesset – was an extremely unhealthy reality for a democracy and we should welcome the fact that it is over for now. However, we must also ask ourselves about the lessons we take from this crisis: How should we strengthen the rules of the political game so that we do not eventually discover that, similar to the pattern of the pandemic, the last six months were just a brief respite from waves of political crises?
The Israeli Democracy Index suggests some possible pathways for addressing this question. When asked which structural changes they would want to see in Israel, the Israeli public voiced broad support for reforms that might restore trust in state institutions. For instance, a large majority of Israelis support transferring powers from the central government to local authorities, who demonstrated their management capabilities in an exemplary manner during the pandemic. Israel is the most centralized state in the OECD in terms of the scope of authority held by the national government, and it is time for real powers to be devolved to local municipalities.
Another reform supported by the public, and one that is of supreme importance to the country’s constitutional foundations, is to require a majority of at least 80 Knesset members out of 120 for amending or passing Basic Laws. More than half the Israeli public supports this proposal, because they understand Israel’s Basic Laws – which define our rights and the rules of the democratic game – are currently vulnerable. We have seen how the democratic and political rules have been bent recently, first during the formation of the Netanyahu-Gantz government in 2020, which created an unprecedented form of government, and then again during the formation of the current government, for which the coalition agreements themselves were grounded in changes to the Basic Law: The Government. Such reforms will help strengthen public trust and will place Israeli democracy on firmer ground. Israelis need to know that the Knesset and the government are guided by the public good, not by narrow party and political interests.
At the same time, there should be a real commitment to improving the political system and correcting its flaws. The heads of state institutions, including the IDF and the Supreme Court, should conduct transparent internal reviews and address issues that must be fixed. The sense of injustice felt by those who have had direct experience of the legal system or with young people who feel that the military might know how to win wars against external enemies, but that it struggles to deal with the problems faced by its individual soldiers, must be addressed.
While much of the data included in this year’s index should serve as a warning for us all, it also presents many positive insights about our country, including the fact that the great majority of Israelis feel that this is a good place to live and would prefer to live in Israel over anywhere else – even if offered foreign citizenship. No less importantly, most of the public believes in the concept of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Our leaders would do well to build upon the positive elements in the 2021 index, while also noting and addressing the increasing decline in public trust in the institutions that are so vital to our democracy. Such a decline in trust may well be part of a larger international phenomenon, but we should never accept it as inevitable. If we always work together to seek to improve our institutions and hold our public officials accountable, then there is no doubt that public trust can return once again.
The writer is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.