Public trust in police, attorney general sinks to lowest ever in poll

Israel Democracy Institute says drop likely related to recent police spyware scandal; opinion divided on plea deal for Netanyahu

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Israel Police investigate the scene of a crime, on June 2, 2021. (Israel Police)
Illustrative: Israel Police investigate the scene of a crime, on June 2, 2021. (Israel Police)

Public trust in the police and attorney general has slumped to its lowest in nearly 20 years, apparently driven downward by reports accusing Israel Police of using spyware on citizens without proper oversight and the corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a new poll has found.

The Israeli Voice Index for January 2022, published Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute, found that trust in police, which has been steadily declining since 2018, was just 29 percent, the lowest since the index was begun in 2003.

Political outlook influenced trust levels, with 72% of those who define themselves as right-wing expressing distrust, along with 62% of those in the center and 54% of those on the left.

The IDI said it appeared at least some of the fading public trust in police was due to the disclosure that it had used phone spyware to monitor citizens and their communications. Only a third said they believe the police are careful that such monitoring remains within the bounds of the law. Police chief Kobi Shabtai has insisted all tapping was properly approved.

The poll found that trust in the attorney general, a key figure in putting then-prime minister Netanyahu on trial, had also reached its lowest level ever at just 31%, down from an average of 42% in 2020 and an overall average in previous indexes of 49%. While until 2018 the left-wing, centrist, and right-wing camps of Israeli politics displayed similar levels of trust, at between 44%-48%, over the past two years there has been a significant divergence, the IDI said.

After outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu in 2020 there was a sharp rise in trust on the left (68%) and a similarly contoured drop in trust on the right (33%), with a slight rise in the center (56%).

“This time, there was decreased trust on the left and center as well as on the right,” the IDI said, referring to the January 2022 poll, which showed trust on the left at 49%, 44% in the center, and 21% on the right.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Mandelblit, who was stepping down on Tuesday after six years in office, was reportedly in the midst of negotiations for a plea bargain to end Netanyahu’s trial.

There were mixed feelings among respondents on a deal for Netanyahu, now the Knesset opposition leader, with 39% supporting an agreement that convicts him of some of the charges against him along with his quitting public life, and 43% opposing such a scheme.

Half of those who voted for parties in the current coalition, which ousted Netanyahu last July, backed a plea bargain, while only 29% of those who voted for opposition parties were in favor.

A key element of the reported plea talks is a charge of moral turpitude, the conviction of which would ban Netanyahu from holding public office for several years. The survey found that 45% believe it is essential the charge be included in a plea bargain while 36% believe it is not necessary.

The issue deeply divided respondents according to their political outlook, with 81% of those on the left saying moral turpitude must be included in the deal, as did 63% of those in the center, compared to just 26% among right-leaning respondents.

In the wake of media reports last month that police used the notorious Pegasus spyware made by Israel’s NSO Group, Mandelblit ordered a probe of the matter as did Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police.

About half the respondents believe that judges are too quick to grant state agencies’ requests to track ordinary citizens and tap their communications. Only a third held the opposing opinion.

The IDI survey found that 62% believe government agencies, such as the police, are surveilling or “listening in” on ordinary citizens. An even larger segment of 82% is certain that firms such as Facebook and Google are tracking them.

Illustrative. An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, on August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

A majority of Jewish (89%) and Arab (67%) Israelis were in favor of electronic surveillance if there is suspicion of national security offense, and a similar 86% of Jews and 74% of Arabs backed it for use against criminal underworld activity.

There was also strong support from both groups (84% of Jews and 77% of Arabs) for using such surveillance when there is a suspicion of consumption of pedophilic material. Both groups also backed its use in cases of suspicion of violence against family members or neighbors (69.5% of Jews, 56% of Arabs.)

However, there was a significant difference of opinion in justifying electronic surveillance where there is suspicion of anti-government activity, with a minority of Jews (36%) supporting spyware use compared to just over half of the Arab respondents (50.5%)

Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attends a ceremony of the Israeli police in the northern city of Nazareth, November 9, 2021. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

The Pegasus software has repeatedly made headlines in recent years amid allegations by rights groups around the world that NSO sold the program to regimes that use it to monitor and repress opposition voices.

Most respondents (64%) agreed that Israeli authorities should prevent NSO Group from selling its software to authoritarian regimes that may use it to “track, and even harm, human rights activists and political opponents,” IDI said.

The figure was slightly higher than the 59% of support recorded for the same proposition in July, it noted.

The poll followed an annual IDI survey published in January that found overall confidence in state institutions remains low. That poll found public trust was highest for the IDF and lowest for the Knesset and political parties.

The Voice Index is a monthly survey by the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the IDI. It was carried out by the Midgam Institute online and by telephone between January 25 and 27. It sampled 602 people in Hebrew and 151 in Arabic, representing Israel’s adult population, of which Arabs make up about 20%. The margin of error was given as 3.59 percentage points, with a confidence level of 95%.

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