Right-left rift tops ethnic tensions as biggest source of polarization in Israel
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72% of public believe government to be corrupt

Right-left rift tops ethnic tensions as biggest source of polarization in Israel

Poll shows most Israelis see the divide between political camps as the chief societal rupture; finds how most view corruption depends on how they voted

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Illustrative: Israelis protest against corruption, urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, in Tel Aviv on February 16, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israelis protest against corruption, urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, in Tel Aviv on February 16, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A growing fissure between the right and left has catapulted political rifts into becoming the most powerful source of tension in Israeli society, leapfrogging long-held divisions between Jews and Arabs, a new poll of attitudes from across the widening political spectrum has found.

In 2012, just nine percent of Jewish Israelis identified the right-left divide as the worst rift in the country. Today, that number stands at 36%, according to a poll released on Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute.

The poll also pointed to polarization among Israelis regarding how they view alleged corruption by elected officials and the state of democracy, in a further sign of the growing chasm within Israeli society.

Close to half of Israelis believe the country’s leadership is corrupt, according to the poll, which was released a day after police said there was enough evidence to put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on trial for bribery and breach of trust.

But among voters of parties belonging to the government, that number dropped to less than half of the overall average, not registering as a major concern.

Overall, some 45% of respondents agreed that Israel’s democracy itself is in “serious danger.” But the sentiment was also split along political lines — being far more prevalent among Arab Israelis (70%) and left-wing Jewish respondents (57%), while just 13% of religiously identified and right-wing respondents agreed.

Those are the starkest of several indications of right-left alienation in the latest Israel Democracy Index, a comprehensive annual survey of Israeli attitudes conducted between April 8 and May 2 by the IDI think tank and presented to President Reuven Rivlin on Monday.

In total, 36% of the 1,041 respondents (with a maximum sampling error of 3.1%) said that right-left tensions were the strongest in Israeli society, while just 28% said tensions between Jews and Arabs were worse.

A chart showing the strongest tensions in Israeli society. (Israel Democracy Institute)

Survey director Dr. Tamar Hermann said the findings show that “the level of tension between right and left in Israel is on the rise.”

Despite the government nearing completion of a full four-year term — notwithstanding recent crises that could spell early elections — “many Israelis (predominantly from the left and center) feel that Israeli democracy is on very shaky ground, though others (predominantly from the right) feel exactly the opposite,” according to Hermann.

“Two blocs have formed within Israeli Jewish society, holding opposing views on many different aspects of Israel as a collectivity: security issues, socioeconomic issues, and with regards to questions on corruption, culture, gender and liberal values,” she said. “This polarization is a dangerous process, reflecting an inability to reach consensus on what is the common good.”

The Knesset plenary during vote on the state budget for 2015-2016, November 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The poll found that the general public’s assessment of Israel’s overall situation continues to be positive, with 53% describing the situation as “good” or “very good,” 29.5% calling it “so-so” and only 16% believing it to be “bad” or “very bad.”

But, for example, only a minority of the Israeli public believes that a “good balance” exists between the Jewish and democratic components of Israel’s identity, with 45.5% saying that the Jewish component is too strong, and 21% that the democratic component is top-heavy. The results reveal further polarization when broken down into religious identification with close to two-thirds of secular Jews (61%) deriding the Jewish component and 59% of the ultra-Orthodox calling for a downgrade of the democratic.

The poll also underlined that Israelis harbor deep distrust for their politicians, both on a local and national scale, and most believe them and the institutions they represent to be corrupt: The four institutions least trusted by the Israeli public are the media (31%), the government (30.5%), the Knesset (27.5%) and in last place, political parties (16%), the findings show.

Specifically, a majority believe that three key political institutions are blighted by corruption – the government (72%), municipalities (69%) and the Knesset (66%).

On the other end of the scale, the IDF scored as the most trusted institution, by 78% of the general public; 61% said they trust President Rivlin, 52% the Supreme Court and 42% the attorney general.

Notably, in line with a sense of despair over government corruption, 79% of the public feels they have “little or no influence” on government policy and 52% said they would not advise a friend or family member to enter politics.

A chart showing Israeli perceptions of corruption in state institutions. (Israel Democracy Institute)

Rivlin, receiving the report from IDI, described the results of the poll as “troubling,” saying that a healthy democracy is based on trust, and calling for work to be done for it to be restored.

“Year after year, the Israel Democracy Index reveals that while Israeli citizens exercise their right and their duty to vote and have their say, they keep at arm’s length from anything connected with the very person he or she has voted for. Politics is a minefield to be avoided. All too many Israelis feel that they have no influence on the government’s policy,” he said.

Yohanan Plesner, President of the IDI, presents the 2018 Democracy Index to President Reuven Rivlin. December 3, 2018. (Noam Moskowitz)

These data are troubling. What’s the point of casting your vote in the ballot box if you don’t believe that on the other side there’s a party or an elected official that you can trust? Democracy cannot exist without trust.  We must restore trust between Jews and Arabs, between right and left, and between Israeli citizens and their elected officials,” the president warned.

Protesters outside the Prime Minister’s Residence hold a sign reading “Crime Minister’ as police investigators arrive to question Benjamin Netanyahu, July 10, 2018.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For the first time, the poll this year included a section dedicated not only to perception of corruption but also its effect on voting patterns.

While 47% of Israelis think that Israel’s leadership is corrupt, the number is vastly different when broken down according to political party support, with voters on the right showing a significantly lower level of worry in government corruption: Jewish Home (15%), Likud (23%), Torah Judaism (37%), Kulanu (38%), and Shas (40%), as compared with the majority of voters on the  left: Meretz (78%), Joint List (67%), Zionist Union (67%) and Yesh Atid (58%).

International ratings show mixed results when comparing Israel’s corruption to other countries.

On the World Bank’s Rule of Law Index, Israel’s ranking has dropped by three places compared to last year, though it still ranks in the top 40 overall — 39th out of 209 countries surveyed and 22nd among OECD countries. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index also records a slight drop in Israel’s scores over the past year. The World Bank’s Control of Corruption Index, on the other hand, which examines the level of corruption at the local and regional levels, and “the influence of elites and of private interests on the country’s conduct,” marks Israel up by 2.5 points in 2018 compared with 2017.

Police said on Sunday that they believed there was enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust and fraudulently accepting benefits in the Bezeq corruption probe, known as case 4000. They also recommended that his wife, Sara, stand trial in the case.

Earlier this year, police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other corruption cases, designated 1000 and 2000.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by his wife Sara before lighting a menorah during the start of Hanukkah in Ramat Gan on December 2, 2018. (GUEZ / AFP)

In another sign of political polarization, a majority of Israelis (52%) think that the ongoing corruption investigations testify to the strength of Israel’s democracy, while 40% think that they reflect its weakness, the poll found. At the same time, 42% think that the investigations are “overblown” while 57% say they are justified. And that number goes up to 55% with respondents on the right and down to just 18% on the left.

Netanyahu has not only rejected the allegations against him but said that law enforcement officials were being pressured to pursue the criminal investigations against him, alleging a “witch hunt” against him and his family.

According to the poll, most Israelis (60%) agree with him and think that the corruption investigations are biased and that not all suspects are treated equally.

Unsurprisingly, those results also follow a clear left-right divide, again testifying to an Israeli society continuing to grow further apart.

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