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How is Israeli democracy doing? Well, it depends…

The 2016 Israeli Democracy Index, published in December, has found that the deepest division in Israeli society today is not between any "tribes" but between the country's citizens and its leaders

The survey includes numerous findings relating to Israeli public opinion on a wide range of socio-political questions: attitudes about the "state of the state"; how optimistic respondents are about their own future; government performance; politicians' main motivation for being in the political arena; primary cleavages in Israeli society, and much more.

The abundance of data contained in this annual report makes it impossible to give a one line diagnosis of how Israeli democracy is doing.  However, a general picture can be gleaned from a few of the many issues addressed in the report.

The following two issues relate to the general public, while the last two address two specific sectors: Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim).


1. The state of the state and that of individual respondents: In stark contrast to the local media discourse that tends to highlight the negative aspects of life in Israel, the public assesses the state of the state as so-so (40%) or good (36.5%). How individuals perceive their personal situation is even more positive (good – 75%, so-so – 20%). These positive assessments are similar to the patterns found in previous years' surveys.

Most Israelis (67%) are also quite optimistic about the future of the state.  These findings are important to keep in mind when discussing the (apparently low) possibility of either a massive wave of protests breaking out or a dramatic bottom-up political shift taking place any time soon.


2. (Dis)trust in state institutions: The public level of trust in all state institutions (besides the IDF) was lower this year than the mean trust score since our first survey was conducted in 2003. The decline in trust is even more dramatic when compared to the 2015 results.

Perhaps most worrying is which primary democratic institutions occupy the very bottom of the trust scale: government (26% of respondents expressed trust); Knesset (27%) and political parties (14%). The media, supposedly democracy's watchdog, also fails to inspire trust (24%).

The overall low trust vertical stands in stark contrast to the high degree of faith that a large majority of Israelis have in one another. Specifically, the survey found a high trust horizontal, with over two thirds of respondents believing that Israelis can always rely on each other. This level of trust indicates that the public is basically trusting, though it gives very low marks to the country's representative bodies and politicians, who are widely perceived as being focused on their own interests instead of the public good (79%).


 Only 27% of the public expressed trust in the Knesset: Here a mother brings her children while she votes in a general election; Credit: National Photo Collection.


3. The Arab sector and the state: Contrary to the rhetoric of leading Arab Israeli politicians, most Israeli Arabs are evidently proud of being Israeli (55.5%), with a small majority of this population group also being optimistic about the future of the state (51%).

In addition, a large majority of Arab Israelis (72%) support the idea of having Arab parties join a ruling coalition as well as the nomination of Arab ministers (although a consistent majority of Israeli Jews oppose such an alliance with Arab parties). However, a majority of Israeli Arabs (59%) feel detached from the state and its problems, most probably because they feel discriminated against (91%).

Arab Israelis also sense that the Jewish component of Israel's character is too strong (80%), with a large majority (72%) opposing the definition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. In other words, while Israeli Arabs have not turned their backs on the State of Israel, they clearly oppose its dominant Jewish character.


"Leaders and the led are seriously estranged"


4. The Haredi sector and the state: The data collected this year seem to indicate that this sector is no longer (if it ever was) detached from the "Israeli Project". Most Haredim (69.5%) are proud of being Israeli and are optimistic about the future of the state (75%). Also, about two thirds (63 %) stated that they feel part of the state and its problems.

As a mirror image of the Arab sector, a large majority (69%) of Haredim think that the democratic facet of the state is too strong and believe that Jewish Israelis should have more rights than non-Jewish citizens (58% as opposed to only 26% of non-Haredi Jews). Two thirds of Haredim (compared to one half of non-Haredi Jews) believe that citizens who challenge the Jewish character of Israel should be stripped of their right to vote.

What does all this mean for Israeli democracy's future wellbeing? Two key conclusions can be learned from the 2016 Democracy Index.

First, the deepest division in Israeli society today is not between any "tribes" but between the country's citizens and its leaders. Currently, leaders and the led are seriously estranged. Second, despite its hyphenated definition as both Jewish and democratic, the democratic leg is apparently much shorter than the Jewish one, at least as far as the Jewish majority is concerned, though the minority Arab Israeli population shares a similar concern.

For too many Israelis, a belief that democracy simultaneously provided the majority with the right to define the state's character and the minority with the right to equality are not deeply ingrained values.


Tamar Hermann is a professor of political science at the Open University of Israel and a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, which publishes the Israeli Democracy Index.

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