The Return of the State

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It is a well known fact that the general public in Israel is dissatisfied with the government. It is a lesser known fact that in spite of this low approval rating, the Israeli public clearly prefers to receive social and financial services—such as education and healthcare—from the State, and not from philanthropists, private businesses or civil society organizations. This is true despite the popular opinion that, in general, these organizations provide better services than the State and its agents. This tendency was true long before the social and economic services provided by the State began to receive greater public and media scrutiny following the onset of the current global economic crisis. In the following article, we will present and briefly explain the apparent paradox of the negative evaluation of the government's performance, on one hand, and the desire to see it become more active in providing social services, on the other.

As stated above, the general public in Israel—including both Jews and Arabs—is dissatisfied with the performance of the State and its public institutions. The 2008 Israel Democracy Index clearly shows that most Israelis think that the government does not effectively address public issues: 82% expressed some degree of discontent and rated the State's performance as poor, or very poor. Only 18% of respondents indicated that the government deals with these problems well or very well.

Even so, the level of criticism varies depending on the area of government activity. Figure 1 shows the evaluation of the government's performance in several fields—society, public order, economy and security—and it clearly illustrates how negative evaluations in the areas of security and economy are relatively mild in comparison to evaluations of society and public order.

Figure 1: Public Evaluation of the Government's Performance in Several Fields

Aside from the particular field of government activity in question, personal, socio-demographic and political views are also deciding factors in shaping Israelis' opinions of government performance. For example, more men than women thought that the government handles security issues well, or very well—32.3% and 22.9%, respectively. There were no other major divergences between men and women. However segmentation of the data according to voting patterns in the 2006 election indicated that voters for the religious parties—United Torah Judaism, the National Religious Party and Shas (in no order of importance)—were the most critical in all categories; followed by Gil, the pensioners party. Voters for Kadima and Labor, the largest parties in the coalition, were obviously less critical.

Similar polls conducted recently in the United States also demonstrate low approval ratings of government performance, which explains the decisive victory of Barak Obama, who based his campaign on the concept of "change." A CNN poll in October 2008, conducted immediately prior to the election, showed that only one-quarter of Americans were satisfied with the way the country was being run.Paul Steinhauser, "Poll: Americans angry, worried over state of nation," CNN, October 21 2008: Another poll examined the American government's performance in providing various services—food assistance, healthcare and education. The pollsters divided the responses according to the political views of the participants"Obama, McCain Supporters Agree Government Responsible For Ensuring Basic Healthcare, Food, and Education Needs," World Public Opinion, October 13, 2008: and found that 55% of Obama's supporters were dissatisfied with the government's performance in the area of food assistance, as opposed to only 34% of McCain's supporters. The evaluation of healthcare services was even worse—55% of McCain's supporters and 79% (!) of Obama's supporters expressed dissatisfaction. This data cannot to be taken for granted in a country that has a capitalist ethos, which limits the government's responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.

Despite the negative evaluation of the performance of the government as demonstrated above, there are many indications that Israeli citizens are interested in having the government assume primary responsibility for providing socio-economic services. In other words, the concept of a welfare state is still strong in Israeli society. The 2008 Israel Democracy Index data, which has also been reinforced in focus group discussions, has shown that a clear majority of the Israeli public agrees that the government should maintain its traditional economic and social roles while only one-fourth of Israelis would prefer less government involvement in these areas. Paradoxically, there were no obvious differences between the respondents who defined themselves as capitalists and those who claimed that they were socialists; unexpectedly, more individuals with capitalist inclination favored increased state involvement in socio-economic matters than those who favored more limited state involvement. Segmenting the data according to voting patterns in 2006 found that a majority of the supporters of all the of Israel's political parties prefer greater state involvement.

Figure 2: In the past, the State fulfilled many more of the socio-economic roles that are currently being performed by social service organizations or businesses. Some claim that it would be better if the State minimized its involvement in socio-economic matters. Others argue that the State should continue to be involved in these areas. With which of these two views do you most agree?

The blue section represents those who prefer less government involvement; the red section represents those who would prefer more involvement; and the green section represents those who responded that they do not know.

These results were similar to the responses concerning the general preference to receive services from the State as compared to services from businesses or social service organizations. In this case as well, a segmentation of the data according to voting patterns showed that a majority of political party supporters, with the exception of the non-Zionist United Torah Judaism (opposed to the State and its institutions), would prefer to receive services from the State.

Figure 3: If you had to choose between receiving services from a social service organization or from a government agency, which would you prefer?

The blue section represents those who prefer receiving services from the State; the red represents those who prefer services from a social service organization; and the green represents those who responded that they do not know.

We attempted to discover whether or not the preference for services provided by the State was due to the quality of the services provided by civil society service organizations by asking: "How would you respond to the following statement: the State has many responsibilities and duties and, therefore, the socio-economic services it provides will always be inferior to similar services that are provided by civil society  service organization, a private donor or a business, which are all closer to the citizens and which specialize in particular fields?" The responses revealed that a majority (57%) agree with this claim. In other words, the public's preference for state services is not rooted in the belief that the services that the State provides will be better than those provided by alternative organizations.

Interestingly enough, the second poll mentioned above that was conducted in the United States indicated a similar trend even though the US does not have ideological and historical roots in a welfare state. At least 75% of Americans opined that the government should be responsible for providing for the most basic needs of its citizens—education (83%), healthcare (77%) and food assistance (73%).

It seems that the passing free market failure and crisis may provide a limited explanation for the American public's tendency to place responsibility for looking after its citizens on the government, and especially for its desire for more government involvement to provide for those who have been severely affected by the deepening economic crisis. However, in Israel's case, this tendency seems to be rooted in ideas that are deeply ingrained in Israeli society: there is a relative consensus among the Israeli public concerning the central role that the State should play. This phenomenon is known as a high level of "stateness"On stateness, see for example:John P. Nettl, 1968. "The State as a Conceptual Variable," World Politics: 20, 20 559-592 ; Peter Evans, 1997. "The Eclipse of the State? Reflections on Stateness in an Era of Globalization," World Politics 50, 1: 62-87., which refers to the public's tendency to prefer public institutions over other organizations (such as businesses, social movements, religious groups, etc.). High levels of stateness, which tend to rise in times of crisis, promote ideologies that center on a "strong" state, such as socialism or, to a lesser extent, social democracy. Lower levels of stateness, on the other hand, advocate ideologies that favor a "weak" state, such as classical liberalism and, to an even greater extent, neo-liberalism.

Sociological studies indicate that Israel enjoyed high levels of stateness and support for the government in the past. A classic example of this trend was Ben Gurion's policy of Mamlakhtiut, which was implemented during the first years of the State. However, this situation did not prevail. The sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling, has shown that while the level of stateness increased during the State's first two decades, liberal elements were introduced into Israeli society following the Six Day War (1967), which weakened the State and the Israelis' sense of identification with the State, and led to a significant decrease in the level of stateness.Baruch Kimmerling, 2001. The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society and the Military, Berkeley: University of California Press. Nevertheless, stateness in Israel remained high compared to other democracies, particularly the US, where the level of stateness is traditionally very low. Bareli, Gotwein and Friling demonstrated a similar trend, claiming that in the course of time, Israeli society has become individualistic, adopting neoliberal values and shunning the idea of the welfare state that characterizes societies with high levels of stateness.Avi Bareli, Daniel Gutwein and Tuvia Friling (eds.), Introduction to Society and Economy in Israel: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Hebrew), (Sede Boqer and Jerusalem: The Ben Gurion Research Institute and Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Press, 2005: pp. 145-182.

Today, it seems that the Second Lebanon War (2006) was a turning point in the aforementioned decline in the level of stateness. During the war, public disapproval of the government was at its peak. Some openly claimed that neoliberal views had led the government to shirk its most basic responsibilities and abandon its citizens in a time of need. A typical expression of these sentiments appears in Ariana Melamed's Ynet column: "Everyone is a type of front in a war that will be remembered—if we have the strength to remember it—as an institutional shame, the greatest civil blunder in a country that once knew how to care for its citizens, and that later made only a merely polite show of interest in their well-being and finally even stopped pretending to care."Ariana Melamed, "Where is the State?" (Hebrew), 8.8.2006, Ynet:,7340,L-3288007,00.html A survey conducted in the summer of 2008 by the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben Gurion University of the Negev indicated a broad demand by the Israeli public to reinforce the State's status; in other words, the demand for an increase in the level of stateness.Nisim Cohen, Shlomo Mizrahi & Fany Yuval, 2008, Welfare State, Public Policy, Public Opinion: Israel 2008 (Hebrew). The  Department of Public Policy and Administration, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, School of Management. When participants were asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the statement, "some services should not be privatized under any circumstances", on a scale of 1 to 5 (1=disagree; 5=agree), the average result was 4.04. The average response to the statement, "the State should provide for each and every citizen and guarantee that they receive a basic minimal income", was 4.12.Ibid p.27

These findings may indicate a nostalgic inclination to return to "the good old days", but it seems that they are actually an expression of the disillusionment with privatization and "small government". It appears that these public sentiments are motivated by an intense and genuine desire to return to a situation in which the State guarantees a basket of reasonable basic services to its citizens, while complementary services are provided by private organizations and businesses to those who want them and have the means to pay for them.