IDI Senior Fellow Professor Tamar Hermann explores developments in the relationship between the Israeli public and the political establishment, in an article that was published at the end of the third millennium as part of a collaboration between IDI and Walla!, a popular Israeli website.
The tendency among scholars to "bring order" into history by dividing it into distinct periods invariably leads to a certain degree of distortion and misinterpretation of reality. Still, attempting to define the past decade of relations between the Israeli public and the political establishment reveals a clear trend—souring romance.
For many years, Israeli society was characterized by high levels of multi-faceted civil political participation: high voter turnout, massive party membership, stable party loyalty, close following of the political arena through intensive media consumption, etc. The Israeli public has also been marked by its stalwart political opinions and a relatively high level of respect for political office holders. However, it appears as if this affection is now fading: levels of political involvement are declining, at least with respect to institutional political channels, and in parallel anti-political sentiments are emerging. Today, politics is perceived by the general Israeli public as a "dirty business" and politicians are seen as inherently morally compromised. Indeed, survey findings indicate that most Israelis still have a considerable interest in politics. Therefore, apparently the public is not indifferent to politics, but rather angry and frustrated over perceived failures, the system's chronic shortcomings, and the malpractice of office holders.
On the formal level, we are witnessing a continuing decline in election turnouts. True, Israel is not yet on the bottom rungs of voter turnout in democratic countries. However, compared to the rates of just a few decades ago, and in comparison with other established democracies, it is on a downward slope with only two-thirds of eligible voters exercising their right to vote. Moreover, non-participation is not distributed evenly throughout the population, but is more prevalent in certain sectors, e.g., Arabs, young voters, and secular voters, as well as those living in the periphery. On the other hand, voter turnout in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and orthodox sectors is very high, which strengthens these sectors' parliamentary representation.
Party membership is also declining steadily. Although the parties are reporting increasing numbers of dues-paying members, the professional surveys, which claim political neutrality, indicate that only 4% of respondents in national representative samples report belonging to any political party.
On the informal level, we are seeing a significant drop in the number of people who follow election and news broadcasts. Furthermore, the public discourse has been marked by an increase in expressions of disgust with the political system and with politicians. In the 2008 Israeli Democracy Index, only 3% of respondents related positive associations with the word "politics," compared to three-fourths of respondents who reported negative associations (the remainder had no opinion). Terms such as 'physical revulsion', "betrayal", and "deceit" were commonly used to describe the sentiments conjured up by 'politics'. The prevailing opinion in the public today is that a politician who is not corrupt will not succeed. Furthermore, the public feels that the system is incapable of coping with the challenges the country faces, with the possible exception of the security apparatus. The Israel Defense Force consistently receives a higher level of public confidence than any other state institution.
Why is anti-political sentiment dangerous? First, due to a lack of confidence in the political system and its leaders, the public may be largely unwilling to back strategic decisions, if and when they are made—e.g., far-reaching government reforms or the signing of peace agreements—which diminishes their chances of implementation. A focus on corruption in the public discourse generates a massive funneling of material resources and public attention to investigating corruption at the expense of other endeavors, putting all politicians constantly on the defensive, and thereby affecting their ability to focus on their duties. The need to constantly "appease" a disenchanted public also undermines a politician's readiness to make painful political decisions even when these are badly needed. An anti-political atmosphere could lead the frustrated citizens to forego democratic procedures and hinge their hopes on a "strong leader."
These realities are liable to ultimately drive worthy people out of politics, abandoning it to those who are not qualified to lead and make key policy decisions. The upright "good guys" might find themselves a niche for fruitful and important undertakings in the civilian sphere and thereby keep their hands clean and their image unblemished. However—whether we like it or not—the most important decisions are made at the level of institutional politics. Therefore, as one U.S. researcher concluded, "Politics really is dirty. But rather than shirking away, it should be remedied."
Professor Tamar Hermann is a Senior Research Fellow at IDI and the Dean of Academic Studies at the Open University of Israel.