Over the weekend the findings of a study about the state of Israeli democracy and the public's commitment to its values were published. The study indicated, to a large extent, that democracy in Israel is merely formal, and there has been a significant decline in the public's support of the elements of democracy.
On the day the media released the study's results, they also reported the suspicions about the Islamic Movement, Minister Tzachi Hanegbi's intention to reopen the Temple Mount to Jews and evaluations of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's scheduled meeting with Abu Mazen and President Bush. These pseudo-routine reports reflected the trends the study spoke of and marked their origin, as well.
The study (conducted by the experts of the Israel Democracy Institute) attempts to provide an index to assess the state of Israeli democracy. Published with it was a public opinion survey from last month reflecting the Israeli public's positions toward democratic activity. On the basis of a complex series of tests and a comparison to the situation in 35 other states, the study concludes that at the formal level, the state of Israeli democracy is theoretically sound (for example, in the extent of representation and in the mechanisms ensuring checks and balances between the powers), but in practice there is cause for deep concern.
This concern refers to freedom of the press and of religion, to the infringement of human rights, to the extent of equality in the distribution of income and to the existence of political, economic and social discrimination. In some of the tests, Israel scores in the lowest places.
While the method of the study, being the first of its kind, may be criticized (those who conducted it have asked readers for their comments and reservations), it would be difficult to dispute the attached public opinion poll. The poll was conducted using the accepted methods among a representative sample of 1,208 people who were interviewed in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian. The survey's findings mirror the study's conclusions. They indicate a disturbing gap between the Israeli public's declared commitment to democratic principles, and their readiness to apply them.
For example, while 81 percent of the Jews support complete equality before the law, only 47 percent support complete equality between Jews and Arabs and only 23 percent support making the Arabs partner to decisions crucial to the state. In another example, 56 percent of the Israeli population support "strong leaders" (only in India and Romania is there higher support for this) and only 84 percent believe democracy is desireable (the lowest place among all the countries polled).
The study shows a consistent decline in public support for accepted democratic norms: the freedom of expression, equal rights and minorities' freedom of political struggle.
Moreover, focused questions on the Jewish majority's attitude toward the Arab minority indicate that less than a third (31 percent) support having Arab parties in the cabinet (compared to 56 percent in 1999), and more than half the public (57 percent) thinks the government should encourage Arabs to migrate from the country (compared to a majority of public opposition in 1999). This means that the majority finds the transfer idea acceptable.
Despite objecting to giving equal rights to the Arab minority, a considerable part of the Jews deny espousing this position: Only 51 percent agree with the statement that Israel's Arabs are discriminated against.
It is not hard to trace the reasons for these dangerous positions: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is perpetuated by the ongoing occupation, is destroying the foundations of Israeli democracy. The study shows a direct relation between the threat felt by the Israeli public and the extent to which it is willing to grant equal rights to the Arab minority. From here the way to the next central finding is short: The public's commitment to democratic values is unstable and conditioned on the political circumstances. Here is a crucial reason for the prime minister, if the state's future is dear to him, to reach a binding agreement with President Bush the day after tomorrow to jump-start the process which will bring, as soon as possible, an end to the occupation and to settling the conflict with the Palestinians.
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