Critical Currents: Democratic disorders in Israeli society

Deep alienation from the system is fast becoming the norm

This week marks the culmination of an intense period of political activity which has shaken Israel's already fragile democracy. The highly publicized machinations which accompanied the Labor Party primaries and the presidential elections have served not only to magnify the public's immense disaffection with its leaders, but also to hide a series of blatantly anti-democratic moves which threaten to further undermine the foundations of enlightened governance. The publication a few days ago of the Israel Democracy Institute's annual survey of the state of the country's political well-being (Asher Arian, Nir Atmor and Yael Hadar, Auditing Israel's Democracy, 2007: Cohesion in a Divided Society) attests to its sorry condition. Its findings should sound deafening alarm bells - Israel's democratic security is at stake. A full 66% of Israelis are unhappy with the condition of their democracy (12% less than last year). The crisis of confidence is apparent on almost every conceivable measure, beginning with perceptions of institutional performance. The most notable deterioration in recent years relates to corruption: according to Transparency International, Israel's score has declined steadily (from 7.6 in 2001 and 6.3 in 2005, to 5.9 in 2006), placing it between Estonia and Cyprus on a comparative scale. Institutional efficiency ratings are down from 86.1 to 78.0 percent. Accountability, that elusive yet vital measure of the connection between citizens and their elected leaders, despite a mild improvement on paper, is particularly low (Israel holds the 30th slot among 36 countries surveyed, after Korea and before Bulgaria). A full 71% of the representative sample feels that politicians do not take their opinions into consideration when making decisions. Only 22% of Israelis express any sense of political efficacy. Deep alienation from the system is fast becoming the norm. It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that the level of trust in formal institutions has declined systematically in recent years. The IDF after the second Lebanon war still receives the highest marks, but confidence levels have dropped from 84% in 2003 to 74% today. The police, ostensibly the embodiment of law enforcement, only enjoys a 41% approval rating (down from 64% in 2004). And confidence in the Supreme Court, the most highly valued civilian institution, has been cut back from 79% in 2004 to 61% this year. THE STANDING of elected officials is even worse. As expected, support for the presidency has plummeted from 67% in 2006 to 22% today. The position of the Knesset is at a steady low (33%). Approval of political parties stands at 21%. Confidence in the prime minister has taken a nosedive from 43% in 2006 to 21% this year. The breach of faith in Israel's democratic institutions is the most tangible cause for its chronic political instability. The fact that the judiciary - which Israelis believe to be the main guardian of their democracy - is now under assault by the man charged with its protection is testimony to this worrisome trend. Democracies are measured not only by their institutional capacities, but also by their ability to safeguard individual and civil rights. Here, too, the past few years have not been kind to Israel. Its standing with respect to the rule of law, gender rights and economic freedoms is in the middle range of the democratic world. But on other counts, such as protection (both political and economic) of minorities, it is at the lowest end of the totem pole. Israel has yet to internalize and implement the principle of the equal applicability of basic rights to all. BEHIND THIS less-than-edifying picture lies a more profound problem of civic identity. Israel is a multicultural country without a concomitant pluralistic worldview. The Israel Democracy Institute's report this year focuses squarely on this enigma. Social friction is on the rise, and Israelis are extremely aware of the lack of equality. A full 87% acknowledge the gap between Arabs and Jews, 79% between rich and poor, and 66% between religious and secular. Particularly disconcerting is the absence of mutual confidence: only 31% of Israelis trust each other. Sectarian allegiances outweigh the commitment to a common sense of Israeli identity (and are particularly high among those groups subjected to ongoing discrimination). Esterina Tartman's attempt to tamper with the already much-too-tenuous link between Israeli identities and democratic rights might unravel what is left of the civic cohesion of Israeli society. From an entirely different direction, Avrum Burg's recent ruminations contribute to trampling the hope for its rehabilitation. Israel's current democratic malady is profound. No amount of superficial electoral activity or governmental reshuffling can prevent the imminent crisis. When 73% of Israelis believe that strong leaders are more important to the system than free speech or adherence to the law, the democratic order is in severe distress. It is time to address the democratic conundrum in all its complexity. The problem cannot be reduced merely to improving the behavior of those in office, even though some incumbents are directly responsible for gnawing away at the country's democratic foundations. Nor can it be attributed solely to the deficiencies of Israel's electoral system or its structure of government. A normative laxness - closely linked to the continuous conflict and the ongoing rule over another people - lies at its root. The fortification of Israel's democracy - the key to its survival - depends on the ability to tackle these multi-faceted problems directly and boldly in the near future.