A small majority agree that the Supreme Court should have the power to overturn laws passed by the Knesset when democratic principles are contradicted, while a high rate of the Israeli public, primarily from the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox, believe that the selection of judges in Israel is based on political considerations.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, and Prof. Tamar Hermann, academic director of the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research, today (Thursday) presented the 2021 Israeli Democracy Index to President Isaac Herzog. This is the 19th consecutive year that the Democracy Index has been published. It offers a complex picture of the Israeli public’s assessment of the state of democracy in the country, its trust in state institutions, and its opinions regarding the public sector. This year’s Index includes a special chapter on the public’s views on the legal system, as well as the Supreme Court, the neutrality of judges and of the State Attorney’s Office, and the procedure for selecting judges.
Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute: “The picture emerging from the Index regarding the public's opinion of Israel's legal system is worrying. It indicates that, despite the fact that only a fifth of the public directly interacts with the courts, the concerted campaign against the justice system is having an effect and has succeeded in eroding the level of trust in all law enforcement agencies and institutions. Instead of forming their opinions based on firsthand experiences, the attitudes of Israelis instead often correlate with their level of religiosity and political affiliation.
This reality requires that we address the widening gap between the negative image of the legal system held by large swaths of the public, and the objective reality determined by the high esteem in which it is held by legal experts and the accolades the judiciary receives when measured according to reputable international indices.”
Despite a continuing decline in public trust, the Supreme Court has maintained is position as one of the three governing institutions with the highest level of trust (after the IDF and the President of Israel). Again this year, a small majority of the public (56%) expressed support for the idea that the Supreme Court should have the power to overturn laws passed by the Knesset if they are found to contradict democratic principles. Moreover, there has been a certain rise in this level of support relative to the past (56% this year, compared with 52.5% in 2010). Most secular respondents (70%) agree with this proposition, compared with only a minority of national religious (22%) and Haredi (17%) respondents, and there are also sizable differences on this issue between Jews and Arabs—a large majority of Arabs (74%) are in favor, compared with around half of the Jewish public (52%).
Too strong or too weak?
While the majority of those on the Left (56%) and the largest share of those in the Center (41%) hold that the Supreme Court has the right amount of power, most of those on the Right (57%) think it has too much power. A similar pattern emerges with respondents’ religiosity: While the largest share of secular respondents believe that the Supreme Court has the right amount of power, a majority of Haredi (76%) and national religious (70%) hold that it has too much power.
Are the decisions of Supreme Court justices affected by their political views?
The largest share of those on the Left and in the Center (48% and 32%, respectively) think that these decisions are not at all affected or only slightly affected by the justices’ political views, while a small majority (51%) of those on the Right believe that their political views do influence justices’ decisions.
Does the Supreme Court intervene too much in decisions made by the government and its ministers?
A majority of those on the Left and in the Center (80% and 53%, respectively) do not agree that the Supreme Court intervenes more than it should in government decisions. By contrast, a clear majority on the Right (69%) believe that there is too much intervention in government decisions by the Supreme Court.
Israel’s Legal System
Procedure for selecting judges—political or professional?
The selection of judges in Israel is perceived by large sections of the public as a process in which political considerations play a major role. This view is particularly prominent among Haredi and national religious Jews, a large majority of whom consider the process to be political (87% and 77%, respectively). By contrast, less than half of secular Jews share this opinion (46.5%). Among those who define themselves as on the Left, the largest share (46%) believe that the considerations for selecting judges are mainly or solely professional, a position held by just 36% of those in the Center and 19% of those on the Right.
No differences were found between different respondent groups on a question about the extent to which judges in Israel are subject to political pressure (though it should be noted that the question does not ask whether judges bend to such pressure): Here, around three-quarters of respondents in the various groups, or even more, think that there are attempts to put political pressure on judges.
Biased or unbiased treatment of elected representatives?
Around half the public (52%) hold that the political affiliation of elected officials influences their treatment at the hands of the legal system. Analyzing the Jewish public by political orientation, the view that the legal system in Israel does not treat elected representatives in an unbiased manner due to their political affiliation is widely held on the Right (63%), but is a minority opinion in the Center (39%) and on the Left (29%). In a similar vein, a majority of those on the Right (65%) hold that judges do not treat everyone who appears before them equally, while less than half of those in the Center and on the Left share that view (47% and 45%, respectively).
Is there corruption in the legal system?
It depends on who you ask. While a majority of those on the Left and in the Center hold that the legal system is not all corrupt or only slightly corrupt (73% and 52%, respectively), a majority of those on the Right think that it is quite corrupt or very corrupt (61%). Additionally, among those who believe that the legal system is not at all corrupt or only slightly corrupt, the large majority (80%) think that judges are selected based mainly or solely on professional considerations. By contrast, among those who believe that the legal system is quite corrupt or very corrupt, the large majority (88%) think that political considerations are the main or sole basis for the selection of judges.
State Attorney’s Office
Does the State Attorney’s Office act on the basis of political considerations or professional considerations?
Most of those on the Left (63%) hold that the State Attorney’s Office acts solely or mainly on the basis of professional considerations, which is also the most popular view among those in the Center (47%). On the Right, meanwhile, the majority (63%) think the opposite is true, and that the actions of the State Attorney’s Office are based mainly or solely on political considerations.
The 2021 Democracy Index was prepared by the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research of the Israel Democracy Institute. In the survey, which was conducted on the internet and by telephone (supplements of groups that are not sufficiently represented on the network) from June 15-24 2021 & October 24-27, 2021. In October1004 men and women were interviewed in Hebrew and 184 in Arabic, constituting a representative national sample of the entire adult population of Israel aged 18 and older. The maximum sampling error for the entire sample was 2.9%± at a confidence level of 95%. The fieldwork was done for the June survey by the Dialogue Institute (Jews) and the Afkar Institute (Arabs) and for the October survey by the Midgam Institute. For the full data file see: Data Israel.