TEL AVIV (JTA) – These days, even a call to an Israeli telephone operator for a listing can prompt despair over the state of Israeli politics.
Asked for the number of the Israel Democracy Institute, an operator asks a reporter, “But where is our democracy?”
It’s a question many Israelis are asking these days.
Shaken by a string of corruption scandals at the highest levels of government and inundated with media talk of the government lacking direction and responsibility, Israelis’ faith in their politicians and their democracy are at record lows, polls show.
A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 60 percent of Israelis say they are interested in politics, down from 73 percent two years ago. While high by American standards, the numbers are remarkably low for Israelis, known for being highly polticized.
The poll showed that only 17 percent of respondents trust Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and 15 percent trust Israeli political parties. And that was before news broke of the latest corruption scandal involving the prime minister.
“I don’t know when it began, but the amount of distrust is so big, is so deep, it’s almost insurmountable,” veteran Israeli journalist Daniel Ben-Simon told JTA.
In his final column for Israel’s daily Ha’aretz last week, Ben-Simon announced he was entering politics. The 54-year-old journalist says he sees Israel’s political problems as a call to engage and fix a broken system.
“I am jumping in anyway. To change. To influence from the inside. To shape a different agenda. To bring the public closer to politics. To pave the way for others. To signal that there is another way,” Ben-Simon explained in the column.
Ben-Simon said the warning from friends was almost always the same: “Make sure you don’t get eaten alive.” He will be running as part of the Labor Party and plans to make bridging social gaps his top priority.
A series of corruption scandals have worn away at Israelis’ faith in politics. Aside from the scandals plaguing the prime minister, which range from allegations of illicit fund-raising to trading favors for cash, a host of other Israeli politicians are seen as tainted.
Former Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson was indicted for money laundering and embezzling more than $1 million. Omri Sharon, the son of ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, recently served a prison term for fraud. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon was found guilty of sexual harassment, and former President Moshe Katsav is accused of sexual assault.
Trying to tap into the Israeli public’s desire for clean government, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is campaigning for the leadership of the Kadima Party by painting herself as one of the few trustworthy politicians out there.
Speaking June 18 at the Jerusalem conference of the Movement for Quality Government, Livni said, “When the public gives its mandate, it wants to know that it can trust its elected officials.”
Tamar Herman, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, says the distrust of political leaders is not a uniquely Israeli phenomenon, but here the stakes feel higher because politics is more relevant to daily life.
“It gets more voice than other places because the situation is more complicated and the problems more relevant to the everyday life of its citizenry,” Herman said. “The war in Iraq is less relevant to a person in South Dakota, for example, than what is happening in Gaza to a person in Ashkelon.”
Dwindling political involvement is one salient sign of growing disgust with politics, Herman said. Throughout the elections of the 1990s, nearly 80 percent of eligible Israeli voters went to the polls. In the last national election, in 2006, the number dropped to 63 percent.
Aside from the drop-off in voting, fewer people are joining political parties and young people are increasingly reluctant to serve in the military. Though Israel has a mandatory draft, growing numbers of Israelis are finding ways to evade the service.
Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who tried his hand at Israeli politics before resigning – twice – said he is alarmed by the increasing cynicism.
“We need a certain minimum of idealism for those living and fighting for the state, and that is why it’s very dangerous,” he said. “I don’t want to be alarmist, but major efforts must be made.”
Taking the long view, some observers say it’s not that corruption is entirely new to Israeli politics. In the past when the country was less prosperous, it was favors that were traded instead of money.
Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist, said the sense that today’s politicians are more corrupt needs to be put in historical perspective. Over the past 30 years, he said, the number of Israeli politicians linked with corruption has risen.
“The standards have changed, the media has changed, the sense of transparency has changed,” he said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., where he is on sabbatical at George Washington University.
Many blame Israel’s electoral system for breeding corrupt politicians and are calling for the direct election of lawmakers from constituent districts rather than from within political parties, as they are now.
Diskin argues that the adoption of the primary system itself in individual parties is problematic. Now that senior party officials no longer select party lists and individual candidates have to fight among themselves in expensive campaigns, more politicians are misusing those campaign funds, he says.
Guy Spigelman, an immigrant from Australia who lost in the Labor primaries in 2006, says the existing primary system also shuts out lesser known but potentially promising future talents.
“Unless you are famous or you come from a military background, there is almost no way of getting elected in the political system,” Spigelman said.