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Preliminary results from the "Democracy Index - 2003 Report" published in yesterday's Haaretz, reflect troubling erosion in the public's perception of democracy and of the necessity for it to exist.

The study, sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Guttman Center, is based on surveys carried out during the past year, and on comparisons between these findings and ones compiled in previous years in Israel and in other countries. Its authors conclude that while a clear majority of Israelis favor democracy, the support for the democratic system in 2003 has plunged to the lowest level recorded during the past 20 years.

Currently, just 77 percent of Jews in the country agree that democracy is the best system, as compared to a figure of some 90 percent that remained constant up to five years ago. The comparison to figures from around the world is still more worrisome. In public opinion surveys relating to support for democracy that were conducted in 32 countries between 1999 and 2001, Israel ranks in the lowest tier - with Poland, Chile, South Korea, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Taiwan, Argentina and South Africa.

The finding that a majority of Israelis support "strong leaders" - 56 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "strong leaders can do more for the state than debates and laws" - and also that fact that 50 percent of respondents concur that if there is a conflict between security interests and the preservation of the rule of law, the former should take precedence, are similarly worrisome. No less troubling are the findings that 23 percent of the Jewish public believes that a soldier can refuse orders, and just 57 percent of respondents definitely agree with the statement that violence should never be used to attain political objectives.

Answers to questions about checks and balances between Israel's three branches of government reflect gaps between Israel's religious and secular populations. Whereas 17 percent of secular respondents oppose processes of judicial review, the figure for the religious is 37 percent; whereas 51 percent of religious respondents said that the High Court's intervention in government decisions is excessive, just 23 percent of secular respondents criticized the court in this respect.

Israel is a young democracy. The national movement that established the state created a revolution among the Jewish people, and brought a variety of Jewish communities and cultures to the Middle East, to an arena of continuing, violent dispute. This dispute, which (among other things) produced the occupation, casts a long shadow over the state and society in Israel, and hedges against the orderly development of democratic government, and acceptance of the democratic system among various groups. Religious pressures - which draw on messianic, nationalistic and other impulses - and other factors threaten to undermine the society's emerging rules and consensus.

In recent years, Israel's society has become divided up into sectors, each of which understands its own values and needs as having precedence over the wider national consensus. Some sectors are preoccupied with their own separate issues; others seek to impose their agenda on the public as a whole. In contrast, Israel's pluralistic, tolerant center is shrinking. The cult of zealous, purist agendas can be seen in the increasing legitimacy accorded to refusal to do military service.