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Israel 2021: Corona Amplifies Distrust in Public Institutions

Israel 2021: Corona Amplifies Distrust in Public Institutions

Failure to quash pandemic magnifies other failings, perceived or otherwise

The Israeli public’s confidence in all public institutions steeply declined last year, according to the Israeli Democracy Index 2020: Public Trust, Social Solidarity and Democracy in Danger.

“One can see gradual deterioration in the public trust of institutions, especially governmental institutions. … The coronavirus only reinforced and expanded that threat,” Eytan Gilboa, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line in discussing the Israel Democracy Institute’s report released on Monday.

“The public perception of government’s failure to deal with the crisis, the feeling that many of the decisions … were made on political rather than professional considerations” were central to this deterioration, Gilboa said.

Jewish Israelis’ trust in the president of the state fell from 63% in June to 56% in October, even though the post is largely ceremonial.

The same public’s faith in the Supreme Court declined by 10 percentage points, from 52% in June to 42% in October, and its trust in the Knesset dropped by 11 percentage points during the same period, to 21%.

By the end of 2020, Jewish Israeli trust in the media was at 32%, in the police at 41%, and in political parties at 14%.

As usual, the IDF was the most trusted state institution, although confidence in the armed forces dropped nine points between June and October, “from 90% in 2019 to 81% in October 2020 − the lowest figure since 2008,” according to the report.

Gilboa said that publics in other Western democracies share a high level of confidence in the military.

“The military is [trusted as the] No. 1 [institution], even in the United States and some other democracies, which is quite astonishing when you think about democratic liberal countries; the military shouldn’t be in the first place,” he told The Media Line. “Other institutions should be.”

Arab Israelis’ confidence in public institutions also significantly declined, even though this demographic generally does not have as much faith in these organizations’ effectiveness as their Jewish counterparts. Thirty percent of Arab Israelis expressed trust in political parties in June; that level was halved by October to 14%.

Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a political science professor at the Open University of Israel, attributes the drop in trust to “the last government not doing a good job and the lack of constitutional values that could bridge the gap between Left and Right in Israel.

“We agree on nothing, or very little, and trust is based on some common understanding or interpretation of reality. People do not share any kind of understanding of reality,” she told The Media Line.

“Trust is the basis on which the social contract between governments and their citizens are based. We have no such structure and therefore trust is eroding,” Hermann said.

In October 2020, 57% of Israelis believed that “the democratic system is in grave danger.”

Gilboa said this is not surprising, given the consistent undermining of these systems by the current leadership.

“With years of constant attacks on government institutions, one should not wonder that these are the results. This is quite a huge challenge to Israel’s democracy. Israel doesn’t have a constitution, and democracy itself is fragile because of all kinds of challenges which have become stronger with the pandemic,” he said.

“The key factor here is [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and his legal entanglements and his attack on law enforcement” and the whole system,” the professor said.

“It’s also the kind of language Netanyahu and his people have used against political opposition or rivals. They try to delegitimize the other side. … They constantly disseminated lies. … They abused Twitter the same way [US President Donald] Trump did and the reason that Twitter decided to block Trump could be the same reason to block Netanyahu’s Twitter [account],” Gilboa said.

America has also experienced a decline of public faith in societal organizations, the professor said. “During the Trump years in the White House you find many similarities [between the US president and the Israeli prime minister]. … If you look at trust in institutions in the United States, I think you will find a similar decline.”

Gilboa attributes the continued decline in public faith in institutions to deep ideological divisions and the fact that perceived incongruities in beliefs are met with dehumanization.

“I put the blame primarily on the prime minister, because he is the No. 1 political leader in the country, and on his people…, but the opposition has also been dragged into this poisonous discourse. Much less, but still you find people who use the same kind of disrespectful language and discourse,” he said.

“Polarization is both the cause and result of declining public trust in societal and governmental institutions,” Gilboa added. “I think as long as these symptoms exist, the road to recovery will be quite difficult.”

Hermann said that to improve public confidence, the government must treat all groups within Israeli society equally, try to bring people together instead of tearing them apart, increase transparency, and address policy issues like the coronavirus pandemic or the ailing economy based on expert advice rather than political expediency.

Even with those steps, she said, the scars of political division and mistrust will remain.

“Trust can be rebuilt, but it’s like a china vase; you will always have these cracks,” Hermann said.

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