Faith No More

Israel’s haphazard and tone-deaf response to the Coronavirus crisis – especially the economic element – has exacerbated an already worrying erosion in public faith in state institutions. What could this mean for the country in the long term? A Shomrim analysis

Israel’s haphazard and tone-deaf response to the Coronavirus crisis – especially the economic element – has exacerbated an already worrying erosion in public faith in state institutions. What could this mean for the country in the long term? A Shomrim analysis

Israel’s haphazard and tone-deaf response to the Coronavirus crisis – especially the economic element – has exacerbated an already worrying erosion in public faith in state institutions. What could this mean for the country in the long term? A Shomrim analysis

Shahar Smooha

Gym Naim, Sheine restaurant, and a protest rally. Photos: David Vinocur, Maya Ben Natan, Afik Gabay

July 20, 2020

Summary

O

ne day after a stormy demonstration outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem – and a day before the prime minister himself, in a live address to the nation, unveiled a controversial plan to dole out money to every Israeli citizen – a poll was published which went a long way to explaining Netanyahu’s new־found sense of urgency.

We don’t know if Netanyahu saw the poll, or had gleaned similar information from other surveys conducted on his behalf, but the dramatic trend was plain to see. In the survey, conducted on July 12 by Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Guttman Center for Public Opinion Research and Policy at the Israel Democracy Institute, more Israelis than ever expressed concern about their economic outlook: 61 percent compared to 54 percent in mid־June and 52 percent a month earlier. At the same time, there has been correspondingly sharp drop in public confidence in Netanyahu’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis.

And herein lies the prime minister’s main problem: While at the start of the pandemic, most Israelis expressed confidence in his handling (between 54 percent and 57.5 percent), there was a decline in May and June (44 percent to 48 percent). Last week, however, confidence in Netanyahu plummeted, with less than 30 percent of Israelis now expressing satisfaction with his handling of the crisis.

The loss of confidence in prime minister’s ability to handle the pandemic is particularly steep among Israel’s Jewish population, where it fell from 51 percent to 32 percent. According to Hermann’s analysis of the poll, it is only among the ultra־Orthodox that Netanyahu enjoys a vote of confidence (60 percent), while only 50 percent of respondents who defined themselves as Orthodox expressed confidence in the prime minister. In the remaining groups, only a small minority expressed faith in Netanyahu: among the traditional־religious, 34.5 percent; traditional but not religious, 37 percent; and secular, just 17.5 percent.

Prof. Tamar Hermann: "We've seen a fall־off over the past three months of some 50 percent in the public’s faith in Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis; but had I asked perhaps about the public’s faith in him concerning security issues and foreign affairs, he may very well have scored highly."

When set against the June data, the current poll indicates that confidence in Netanyahu has fallen across the political spectrum. However, the sharpest drops were actually seen among Israelis who voted Likud (from 83 percent to 55 percent), United Torah Judaism (from 74 percent to 49 percent), and Yemina (from 64 percent to 43 percent).

The lack of confidence doesn’t end, however, at the Prime Minister’s Office. Faith in Health Minister Yoel (Yuli) Edelstein remains low (27 percent today as opposed to 31 percent when he took office in May), and the problem on that front goes even deeper: For the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic, more Israelis have no or very little confidence in the government’s health professionals (55.5 percent as opposed to 40.5 percent). That represents a decline in confidence of almost 20 percent in a single month

The situation on the economic front is no better. While Israelis have indeed voiced a relatively low level of confidence in the government’s financial and economic professionals from the start of the crisis (48 percent), this, too, has seen a moderate fall־off over time, dropping to 39 percent in June, and then sliding even further to just 23 percent in the latest opinion survey.

The pollsters also found that the vast majority of Israelis, some 74 percent, harbor negative feelings about the government and its functioning, as opposed to just 15 percent who had positive things to say. The most common feeling was disappointment – a sentiment voiced by 45.5 percent of the respondents. Anger came in second, at 22 percent, and alienation was third, at 7 percent. A small minority expressed positive feelings towards the government – satisfaction (7 percent), trust (7 percent), and pride (a lowly 1 percent). The poll didn’t reveal any significant differences between the sentiments of the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

A very precarious situation

The implications of this decline in public confidence in elected representatives could have dire consequences for Israel, warns Prof. Hermann. But the loss of faith in state institutions could be catastrophic.

"Citizens in a democratic state have a pact with their leadership," says Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of staff at the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University. "Citizens relinquish a portion of their autonomy to their leaders and elected representatives, and rely on them, in return, to make decisions on behalf of everyone, believing that these decisions are designed to serve the general good. A lack of trust arises when the public finds itself in a situation in which it believes that some of its rights are in the hands of people who aren’t perceived to be acting for the sake of the common good.

"This is a very precarious situation. In totalitarian regimes, civil obedience rests on fear, but in a democracy, it’s built on mutual consent. If elected officials don’t act for the people, and in their best interests, they can be replaced every few years. When the mistrust persists, however, and when it touches on a large number of state institutions, we’re faced with a much bigger problem. Because let’s say I don’t trust the police, but I do have faith in the Supreme Court, or the prime minister, or the Knesset, then the problem is more specific and centralized.

Chef Assaf Gabay, Sheine restaurant, insists that nothing will restore his faith in the decision־makers. "It's too late for that. We don’t believe anything anymore. None of my colleagues in the restaurant business expect to receive a penny from them".

"The current situation in Israel is different: We’re witnessing an erosion of confidence across the board, and particularly with regard to the principal institutions of our democracy – the Knesset, the government, and the political parties. And now, of course, we’re seeing a very significant decline in the public’s faith in the prime minister in the context of the Coronavirus crisis."

This mass erosion of confidence is not merely statistical, of course. It is also very personal. Chef Assaf Gabay, who opened his restaurant, Sheine, in Tel Aviv last October, was dealt a particularly painful lesson last weekend. On Thursday night, before dispatching orders to his suppliers of seafood and vegetables, Gabay was keeping an eye on developments from a cabinet meeting, which was discussing possible new restrictions.

"No decisions came from the meeting, so I placed my orders as per usual, and went to sleep. The next morning, my wife woke me up with the news that, as of 5 P.M., restaurants would be required to close their doors. I didn’t know what to do. Do I take the produce? Do I cancel the order? In the end, I took some of it, and I called everyone who had reserved a table for the evening – 60 tables – to cancel.

"At 4:15 that afternoon, I got a message that I can, in fact, remain open as usual until Tuesday. I felt like such an idiot for believing them. I’ve lost faith in them entirely. No matter what they say – yes, no, black, white – I don’t believe a single word. It’s a display of such awful contempt for us. In our industry, weekends make up the bulk of our business, regardless of the Coronavirus. For weekends, you order four times as much as on a regular day.

"I got onto the phone and told all the staff to come to work, and then I started calling the customers who I had canceled that morning. I managed to recover 30 of the 60 tables, and we had a few walk־ins, but I must have lost at least 15,000 shekels. People here feel like they’re being broken over and over again."

According to Gabay, some of his colleagues spoke openly about non־compliance with the new restrictions. "There was some protest talk from restaurant owners who said they would open regardless, but I decided we’d abide by the instructions. I really don’t know what happens next. I have tables booked for Sunday and Monday, because people know that we’re supposed to be closing on Tuesday, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen, and I don’t know how to prepare myself in terms of orders, because some things have to be ordered a few days in advance. I’ve consulted with my staff and I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, Bibi says we have until Tuesday morning; but who knows, he could announce tonight that the head of the Coronavirus Committee doesn’t want to close the restaurants. What would he do? Fire her?"

Gabay insists that nothing will restore his faith in the decision־makers. "It's too late for that. We don’t believe anything anymore. None of my colleagues in the restaurant business expect to receive a penny from them. It makes no difference how many times he steps onto the podium to talk about who’s getting this and who’s getting that; in practice, no one’s getting anything at all right now. So there’s a total lack of confidence to begin with, but what they did to us last weekend… Listen, people here are traumatized. I have colleagues who threw food out on Friday morning and weren’t able to re־order later in the day."

Crossing the line

Barak Medina, a professor of law and rector of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, notes that the upswing in the public’s distrust of state institutions didn’t start during the Coronavirus period.

"What we have here is a situation in which politicians are inciting against governmental entities; there is incitement against the courts, against law־enforcement authorities, against the media and academe. When opinion formers tell people not to trust any branch of the government, it has a very powerful effect on this process of erosion. Moreover, numerous governmental entities are failing to provide sufficient information and lack transparency in their dealings with the public. Now, during the Coronavirus crisis, information isn’t being shared with the public. People are not being informed of the criteria on which decisions are being made. There’s no transparency or reasoning, and that, of course, adds to the lack of faith. We know it’s not possible to provide details concerning every single decision, so it’s vital that the public believes you. Finally, there’s the issue of corruption in the political establishment."

Medina believes that growing mistrust has the potential to undermining the stability of Israel’s democracy. "In practice, though, I don’t think we’re there yet. There is still a sufficient degree of public trust. Particularly when it comes to the law enforcement and judicial authorities, which ensure that we haven’t yet reached such a low point. But the fact that the public’s trust in the political system and government is so depleted reflects this erosion. What we’re seeing today in polls is something that ostensibly foresees such processes. A complete loss of trust means the state ceases to function – it loses its monopoly on the use of force and the ability to impose obedience. The modern state is based on the assumption that 95 percent of the public is law־abiding. Barring that, things collapse."

Senior member of the Government: "The problem is that the decision־making thus far has been erratic, lacking in depth, and emotionally detached from people's economic needs. Treasury officials didn’t understand that there Israelis who weren’t able to survive financially without earning a salary for two months, and these officials failed after the first wave to develop tools that would channel money to those citizens. If a minister tells you that people aren’t going hungry and it is all bullshit, that also erodes trust."

Medina concedes that recent surveys indicate growing erosion in public confidence in various state bodies, but insists that this is only a partial picture.

"Take for example the public’s faith in the courts," he says. "It's not enough to simply ask the question: Do you have faith in the judicial system? You need to check, too, if people are filing fewer petitions when encountering injustice. Put simply, the answer should stem primarily from the public’s behavior rather than the things people are saying.

"We also need to examine the extent to which people respect judicial rulings. If we notice an increasing willingness to evade taxes, that civil disobedience is on the rise, that there’s a fall־off in approaches to the authorities and an increase in efforts to resolve disputes privately, we’ll know that the situation truly is serious. At present, for example, the prime minister has no hesitation in turning to the courts even though he attacks them."

The line, however, is hard to define, according to Medina. "It’s difficult to pick out something specific that would indicate that we’ve crossed the threshold. An increasingly higher rate of non־compliance with the law is a reflection of the process – fewer situations in which people seek remedy from the courts, a fall־off in willingness to pay taxes."

Willingness to enlist in the military, a cornerstone of Israeli society since its establishment, is another area in which loss of public faith could manifest itself, according to Medina. "People are willing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces because they trust that their leaders will only put our lives in danger when absolutely essential. When they stop believing that and fear that the decision to send them into battle is based on external considerations, they won’t risk their lives. Service in the IDF is one of the most significant expressions of trust in the government, and a decline in motivation to serve is a classic example of the erosion of this trust. These processes should concern us in general, and not merely from a specific perspective. It’s very easy to lose the public’s trust, but it’s very difficult to earn it. Without the public’s trust in the various governmental entities, we won’t be willing to accept the legitimacy of their decisions."

The opposite of a personal example

The abundance of contradictory, arbitrary and confusing directives that the government has showered on the public in recent months has certainly undermined confidence in elected officials, but their failure to set a personal example has angered citizens most.

"If you look at the person at the top of the pyramid and see that, in light of the situation, that person’s taking a pay cut, it sends a message and sets a personal example" according to says Dr. Doron Navot, head of the Department of Government and Political Thought at Haifa University’s School of Political Science. "This influences citizens. Obviously, no one thinks the amount in question is going to have any effect on the state of the public coffers, but, by the same token, everyone understands that it’s a symbolic act: If the prime minister takes a pay cut, he’s sending a message.

"During normal times, people are less dependent on the decision־makers, because life goes on its merry way; but in times of emergency, the government’s involvement in your life becomes immediate and intense, and then every little thing that one of our leaders does becomes way more important than the things they do during normal times. People see them as role models, like a father whose every word has an effect on your life.

"What we’ve witnessed in this country has been the complete opposite: Leaders who don’t set a personal example. If I come to you and say: ‘Don’t talk on the phone,’ while I, myself, am talking on the phone, you’ll realize immediately that there’s something amiss here. So if the prime minister tells me that we’re going through a tough period and we need to adhere to the regulations, and then I find out that he’s not adhering to them, I’m going to lose faith in him and won’t want to cooperate.

"Unfortunately, we’ve seen several people in this country who’ve set a bad example over the past few months. While dishing out directives to the public and urging responsibility and discipline and restraint and sacrifices, they’ve cut themselves a lot of slack. If people don’t have faith in the decision־makers, who are telling them, for example, that it’s compulsory to wear a mask in public, they’ll be less inclined to wear a mask, and more will be affected by the virus. If I don’t believe you’re going to wear a mask, why should I? That holds true for almost every governmental action."

Dr. Doron Navot believes that the watershed was the formation of the broad unity government, with its record number of ministers and deputy ministers: "It's an expression of genuine contempt for the public because any reasonable person understands that if they were truly concerned about setting up an effective emergency government for the Coronavirus period, they would have formed a small government."

Navot, who specializes in the study of political corruption, believes that the watershed in terms of elected officials’ message to the public was the formation of the broad unity government, with its record number of ministers and deputy ministers.

"The formation of the broad government was a slap in the face to the Israeli public and generated a profound loss of trust. Not only are people unemployed, they’ve lost hope too. After all, no one knows how they’re going to emerge from all of this. And standing in front of them are politicians who appear concerned only with perks and niceties. This drives a massive wedge between the public and the politicians.

The formation of such a bloated coalition, according to Navot, "is an expression of genuine contempt for the public because any reasonable person understands that if they were truly concerned about setting up an effective emergency government for the Coronavirus period, they would have formed a small government. The size of the government is not only wasteful, but also anti־functional. The public realized this in no time at all, and it led to a severe crisis of trust, which then gives rise to the expressions of rage we’ve seen in recent weeks."

Erratic decision-making

We asked several members of the government for their thoughts on the reasons behind the collapse in public faith in elected officials – and how this trust can be restored. Unsurprisingly, only one of them, a senior member of Kahol Lavan, agreed. And only on condition of anonymity. He began his explanation by noting that the prime minister suffers from an inherent lack of trust that has been exacerbated by his legal predicament. He then went on to claim that centrist and left־wing politicians who remained outside the government are attacking those members of his party who chose to renege on their principal pre־election promise – namely, not serve in a Netanyahu־led government. He concluded by saying that the current battle is being waged against a faceless enemy that can’t really be met by a united front.

"There's no bad guy in this story, so the government became the bad guy," he told Shomrim. "When the country’s caught up in a regular war, the opposition parties back the government and everyone rallies round the flag. This time, it’s a war in which you’re suffering nonstop jabs from all sides during the fighting – [Naftali] Bennett from the right, [Yair] Lapid from the left."

Following a preamble which appears to contend that the decision־makers themselves are not responsible for the public’s loss of faith, the senior politician goes on to say that, "if the crisis had been managed properly, most people would voice confidence in the authorities despite all I’ve said thus far.

"The problem is that the decision־making thus far has been erratic, lacking in depth, and emotionally detached from people's economic needs. Treasury officials didn’t understand that there Israelis who weren’t able to survive financially without earning a salary for two months, and these officials failed after the first wave to develop tools that would channel money to those citizens. The biggest failure of the Coronavirus period is the economic failure, and, in order to cover it up, the government is making medical decisions that aren’t backed by the figures. If a minister tells you that people aren’t going hungry and it is all bullshit, that also erodes trust. Whenever the government deals with issues other than Coronavirus, such as annexation, it leads to alienation and a crisis of confidence."

The official freely admits that his own party played a role in this, given that it agreed to join Netanyahu’s inflated, profligate and ineffectual government, despite promising unequivocally not to in its pre־election promises. "Of course," he says. "Kahol Lavan is party to all the things I’ve said. Because, without us, we wouldn’t have this government. I don’t think we get a good grade for the job we’ve done thus far. We’re part of the problem. Our choices, in terms of what issues to focus on and what to push for or what not to support, are often detached from the public’s daily needs. Having said that, I am pleased we have a unity government and not an interim one. Because of the unity government, annexation [of parts of the West Bank] has been blocked, Netanyahu’s trial is continuing, and the justice, communications and culture ministries are being protected."

The senior politician says, however, that responsibility for the bloated size of the current coalition is not his party’s fault. "The size of the government bothers me too, but the other side had coalition demands of its own. We did everything we could: We had a quota of 18 ministers and we appointed 15; we could have appointed eight deputy ministers but appointed none instead; all of our Knesset members and ministers donate 20 percent of their salaries to non־profit associations. For our part, we have conducted ourselves in a manner we would have expected to see from others too, but this isn’t a government headed by Kahol Lavan."

It used to be bad; now it’s awful

Amir Glick, the owner of Gym Naim – a chain of 11 fitness, yoga, Pilates and dance studios – chuckles wryly when I ask him about his current level of confidence in the authorities.

Amir Glick, the owner of Gym Naim: "What’s my level of confidence? A complete lack of confidence. Zero. None whatsoever in all of these decisions that are being made in the middle of the night, from one moment to the next. When it all kicked off I was optimistic, I thought some of the officials would take us seriously, but it appears I was really naïve. Everything’s being handled in a slapdash manner."

"What’s my level of confidence? A complete lack of confidence. Zero. None whatsoever in all of these decisions that are being made in the middle of the night, from one moment to the next, forcing me to call up thousands of customers and try to figure out what they all mean and what I’m supposed to do. It’s terrible. Not only because it takes a lot of work to do everything I’m required to do to make sure that the conditions at the studios meet the regulations, but also because I feel like my business is being put through a grinder. Just look at what’s going on here. They shut us down, they allowed us to open for five days, and then they shut us down again.

"I was optimistic when it all kicked off. I thought some of the officials would take us seriously, but it appears I was really naïve. Everything’s being handled in a slapdash manner. Every decision seems to be a knee־jerk reaction. The truth is, the watchdog, [Coronavirus committee chair] Yifat Shasha־Biton, wanted answers – and now she’s being fired, or circumvented, because she wanted to make decisions based on data and figures. No one seems to be doing their job properly; Bibi appears to be making decisions on a whim, or based on political pressure or pressure from other interest groups.

"I’d expect them to at least explain the decisions they’re making. To communicate their decisions in an orderly manner, and not from one moment to the next, or via media commentary. And this has nothing to do with financial compensation. Personally, I’ve received nothing during this period. No support. Nothing. Members are leaving and we aren’t getting new members. When you’re in the red, it takes a very long time to recover."

It’s hard to say whether we are in the midst of Israel’s most severe crisis of confidence ever. Hermann rejects drawing a comparison with what many consider the most severe such in Israel’s history – the aftermath of Yom Kippur War in 1973.

"It’s very difficult to compare the crises; we don’t have similar measurements from those years," she says. "Things were in terrible shape back then, too, in the wake of the recession, and people would joke about asking the last person who leaves the country to turn out the lights. There was no such thing as social media, and most importantly, there was one dominant political party, which faced no competition for the reins of power, and the Ashkenazi elite ruled the roost and the other voices were silenced.

"One of the most problematic issues today is the fact that the financial blow doesn’t land equally at all. The public sector has barely felt it, and the wealthy have taken nothing more than a slight knock to their investments. On the other hand, the self־employed have taken a huge whack. A new and previously unfamiliar segment of the public. The bottom line: Back then was bad, and things today are awful. Back then, however, there was a relatively quick fix, in the form of American aid; right now there’s no end in sight."

Hermann stresses that, even when set against the general trend of erosion of public confidence in other liberal democracies around the world, the situation in Israel is very serious because "the dangers on our doorstep are greater than those facing Denmark, for example. The decisions made here have an impact on our physical existence."

Hermann, nevertheless, voices a caveat, stressing that the survey she conducted focuses on the Coronavirus crisis. "We have indeed seen a fall־off over the past three months of some 50 percent in the public’s faith in Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis; but had I asked perhaps about the public’s faith in him concerning security issues and foreign affairs, he may very well have scored highly. If elections were to take place tomorrow, I’m not so sure he would lose because there’s no one else around today who is seen as a better person for the job."