Event Reports

Democracy, Trust and Mistrust

On October 27-28, 2021 KAS Israel held in cooperation with the IDI - Israel Democracy Institute  and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem it’s second online Yaron Ezrahi Conference on the topic: 'Democracy, Trust and Mistrust'

The first day of the conference was held in English and featured a keynote lecture by Prof. Moshe Halbertal followed by a conversation between Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Thomas Friedman and Anne Applebaum with celebrated Israeli journalist Nadav Eyal. The second day (in Hebrew, with English subtitles) included a dialogue with leading representatives of the three branches of government including President Isaac Herzog, Minister of Justice Gideon Sa'ar and former Supreme Court Justice and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. 

Summary on IDI’s website

All sessions can be watched here

Highlights 1 Day:

Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute – "While the political reality in Israel is most definitely unique, the extraordinary political crisis we have experienced over the last two years is part of a troubling erosion of democracy that is taking place all over the world. Increasing personalization of politics, the weakening of political parties, tribalizing effects of social media echo chambers, fierce debates over the merits of globalization, growing gaps between rich and poor, or the very question mark over whether democracy as a system of government can still deliver.  When we met last year, Israeli democracy was undergoing a severe stress test. Now it is time for us to realize just how dangerous the inherent weaknesses of our system are. Specifically, the lack of a constitution and a bill of rights, the intolerable ease with which basic laws can be legislated and un-legislated, and the utter lack of sufficient checks and balances, make Israel extremely vulnerable."       

 

 Dr. Beatrice Gorawantschy, director of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Office in Israel – "Current global developments and challenges have contributed to the fact that the concept that liberal democracy is under attack. Also since globalization and technological changes have not only brought increased connectivity and prosperity but have also caused geo-strategic rifts internationally and tensions in societies. As a consequence, renationalization and protectionism are altering domestic and international political landscapes, growing polarization and resulting in a world order distinctly different than the 20th century. Against the backdrop of these systemic challenges to existing values and orders, anti-establishment political parties and whose agenda is to bring down the existing system can unfortunately flourish…. Globalization has come to meet for many people rising systematic inequality, where the few get it all while the many miss out on its benefits… Leadership is needed more than ever.  There are obvious external threats to liberal democracies, but there are equal threats that are internal. A lower level of trust in democratic institutions is a warning signal for social cohesion and gives rising populism a chance. That makes responsible policy making even more important, along with dialogue and transparency."

 

 Prof. Moshe Halbertal, Hebrew University – "I will discuss the three fundamental elements that define democracy and make it valuable, analyze these components and stand on the systematic damage to each of these components at this time, in particular the third component. The first element of democracy is the principle of one man and one voice. Every person whose destiny the state determines in its decisions should have equal weight in influencing these decisions and shaping them through the right to choose and elect. In this sense the citizen is not "managed." The infrastructure of democracy is therefore not the rule of the majority, but the equal weight given to every citizen and recognition of it properly to decide its fate - equality and recognition, hence the deep essential connection between democracy and liberalism. One of the characteristics of contemporary nationalist currents is the violation of this element of democracy in the name of the "majority." The harm to the minority and the focus on the "enemy from within" that characterizes the transition from nationalism to nationalism, an appeal that includes a systematic harm to the institutions that are supposed to protect these minorities - the courts, civil society organizations and the media. (I will bring to this matter different examples from different contexts of the rise of populism and the Israeli context).

 

The second element that makes democracy valuable stems from the fact that it is a non-violent procedure for resolving disagreements and changing governments. The moment the loser calls the winner to congratulate him is the democratic miracle of a non-violent procedure of a change of government, and a decision in an argument over the way of a society. In this sense democracy makes it possible to live together while disagreeing. The losers' ability to accept this decision non-violently stems from the fact that an election loss is not an erasure of the loser (the parties are not enemies are rivals), the losing party knows he will have another round soon, and reserves the right to criticize, etc. while in opposition. Also, the loser in a liberal society recognizes that loss does not mean an intrusive and invasive change in his way of life because in a liberal society the state is supposed to protect the freedom of citizens and communities to define their way of life as long as they give a similar right to individuals and communities. The third and most important component of democracy in my eyes is that democracy is the attainment of the right to leadership by persuasion. A party or individuals did not inherit power from their ancestors, or did not seize it through a military coup and forceful moves, in a democracy they have persuaded enough of the citizens that they have the proper plan and the ability to carry it out as well. Democracy is therefore the attainment of rule by argument. In order for this fundamental and attractive idea to be truly meaningful, it is of course necessary to preserve freedom of speech and thought, the right to criticism and transparency without which the idea of ​​persuasion is empty of content.

The power of the word and the democratic discourse is undermined by the control of mass media and the evolving techniques of social networks and behavioral psychology. The big problem is how to preserve the distinction between argument and manipulation, education for democratic citizenship is an openness to claims and immunity from manipulations.

But beyond the continuing harm from the evolving field of mastery of advertising and sales techniques over the democratic discourse, there is harm caused by the undermining of facts. One of the main trends of the rise of anti-democratic foundations is (left and right) is the claim that everything is political. Even though the question of global warming (fake news) is not an independent fact of political identity (so in the US and elsewhere the question of vaccines), seemingly scientific garments or value garments turn from arguments into statements of faith. When everything becomes political – politics is destroyed."

 

 Thomas Friedman, New York Times – "One of the defining features of this moment in time is that machines are driving humans, humans are driving nature and humans are interacting with other humans at a level of intimacy that we can almost hear each other whisper.  We have never been here before - humans have built machines that have greater cognitive powers then those we were endowed by evolution or by a higher power.

One of the features of it is cyberspace – a realm where we are all connected but no one is in charge. This leapt forward and in 2007 China woke up and said no no! There will be no realm in China, where everyone is connected and no one is in charge. We are going to project our Chinese communist values into our cyber space, in that way they thought to maximize the benefits and minimize the damage both to the party and to the people.

 

I think that our failure in the West is that we failed to project our democratic values into cyber space and we are now dealing with the asymmetry between the two. I think the Chinese government saw two options – allowing Chinese platforms to be global champions in their field, out of their control – or being second tier companies, in control of the Chinese Communist Party – they chose the latter. Because they think that will maximize resilience and propulsion of their economy. They are watching America, January 6th, unfettered capitalism, a cyberspace where everyone is connected and no one is in charge – and they don’t think that is going to work. It is actually destabilizing.

I have no sympathy for this approach – mine is the opposite. Let us sit down and figure out how we project our democratic terrestrial values into that realm. I think failure to do it is we're paying more and more of a price every day."

 

On populism, Friedman said: "One of the things that people don’t appreciate is that average is over for every individual, company and country. For millennia the world was governed by empires, and then in the 19th and 20th centuries we started to break up into nation states, thru the rise of nationalism and de-colonization. After World War II it was great to be a small weak country. You had two super powers throwing money at you, educating your kids, building your army. In addition, climate change was very moderate and population were very small. No one had mobile phones which allow you to compare yourself to your neighbor and finally China wasn’t in the world trade business. All that flips in the beginning of the 21st century. No world power wants to touch you because all they get is the bill, for example Afghanistan. Also, populations are exploding. Climate change is hammering these countries, everyone has a cell phone. In addition, China is in the world trade business so far fewer countries can be in the textile business. So, a lot of average countries are fragmenting. It is too late for external powers to come in and help these countries and they have also failed at self-government. So this is a really anxious time. Overlay that with the huge changes in technologies. Everyone has to run faster, learn quicker and there is a real hunger out there for someone to stop the wind. That’s where a lot of this populism comes from. Overlay globalism on top of that, people don’t know where their border is and which group their supposed to adapt with, and you have a very fertile ground for populist authoritarianism.

 

On the right leading the anti-vaccine movement in the States whereas in Israel it was the left – a kind of mirror image - "the left has its own identarian issues - they have moved to multi-cultural to multi-culturalism. The balance of pluralism within the party is out of whack and anchoring an identity in a vision of America that everyone can sign on to is very problematic. The debate in America now is that one party, the Republican, is running on a big lie and the other, the Democratic, is running on a big idea very poorly defined. The lie is tapping into very emotive elements – that the big elites are looking down on you, they want to cancel you and that they want to replace you. And the Democratic party has done a very bad job of responding to this.

 

On the most important reforms necessary today for democracy – "I think there is a broader challenge in that the industrial revolution could e be governed in a left or right way. I believe the world we are going into can only be governed by complex adaptive coalitions. I take that concept from nature. In nature that happens emergently – we have to construct. It will require very different politics. We are moving from a world in which our politics were binary to quantum computing, in which you have to be in multiple states at the same time."

 

Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic – "On the China model in terms of stability and in terms of improving people's lives "It is one of the core issues of the moment – the role that China plays, not just in western countries, but also in the rest of the world. It is a curious kind of model. Yes – China does seek to soft sell its kind of system. China is the most important autocracy – but what we have is a network of autocracies. A network of countries with different ideologies, who often now work together. They call themselves communists, nationalists, some of them are theocracies, and yet they work in concert with one another and help each other stay in power. Venezuela is a good example in that it is a failed state, with a well organized opposition, but that is held up by among other things investment by Russia, China and Iran. The appeal of China and that autocratic world and rulers – is that it is presenting a model of control. They don’t pretend or pay lip service – rather they present a model of authority, hierarchy and so far, prosperity. Whoever buys into this system gets help. China isn’t the only member of this international network of autocracies but it is the most important and it cares the most. All that China leaders are saying to leaders of other autocracies is that if you do what we do you can stay in charge. You can get reach and be a part of the global kleptocratic elite, you can stay in power. That model is appealing. One of the most striking things recently is the number of Muslim countries, who have either openly or tacitly ignored China's suppression of its own Muslim minority, the Uighurs, in exchange for being a part of this autocratic network."

 

On the most important reforms necessary today for democracy –"I would point to two things. One is in the area of kleptocracy, ending the system, by which the Russians and Chinese can launder their money, which has a terribly corrupting affect on the west. The other is how do we return democratic values to the internet. Not by creating a big brother – but by concentrating on algorithms and increasing transparency and regulation."

 

Highlights Day 2:

Newly elected President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, joined IDI President Yohanan Plesner at the Yaron Ezrahi Conference on Democracy to lay out his vision on some of the most serious challenges facing Israeli democracy. Among other issues, he discussed the need for Basic Laws that enshrine the rights of Israeli citizens and the need to reset the relationship between Israel's three branches of government.

 

Justice Minister MK Gideon Saar spoke of the Special Committee chances of passing the Basic Law: Legislation: "We are holding discussions, and I believe we will reach something that is important in and of itself - mapping out the areas of agreement and disagreement in the various issues that make up the Basic law of Legislation. Will we be able to complete this? I am not a prophet I can only repeat my assessment from before this government, that there is a higher chance that we'll fail than succeed. The differences are big, there is a need not only for good will, but also the willingness to compromise on the part of people holding different views on the legislation issues. I hope it will come about."

 

Regarding the split of the post of the Attorney General, he noted that "This issue has not been taken off the table. We are facing the appointment of a new Attorney General. The Attorney General will be finishing his term, at the end of January. Within a few days, a search committee for this position will be convene. The type of "model" chosen and presented to the Government, and eventually requiring a Knesset legislation, is a process. I will carry this out after choosing the new Attorney General, and jointly with him." On the proposal that will prevent a criminal defendant from forming a government, he said: “This government came to be for a reason. Something happened that as a result Meretz and Tikva Hadasha and Yemina can sit together - the situation was so critical that this government came to be. And if this government does not improve some important regime arrangements, like this issue, or like the issue of tenure limit, as a rule, then it will fail in its fundamental mission, as I see it."

 

According to Saar he plans at this stage to "Focus on the Basic Law: Legal Rights. If I succeed in passing it, for the first time in thirty years, that a Basic Law pertaining to civil rights is passed. This will raise civil rights in investigation and in trial to the status of constitutional rights. Can anyone imagine the United States of America without the right to due process for example? I believe these things are crucially important. That's why we are at an advanced stage of drafting a memorandum of law. As soon as next month it the memorandum of law will be published for public review. I have spoken to a number of people in relevant positions to promoting this issue and I believe it is within reach. "

 

In conclusion, the Minister of Justice noted that "there is delegitimization of the government which has been elected and is serving by virtue of the Knesset's trust. There is de-legitimization of the Knesset as a legislator is someone doesn’t like the specific law. There is de-legitimization of law enforcing authorities if they act against someone. These things are very dangerous. All authorities need to know how to handle criticism, as long as it is reasoned, but I am talking about violent campaigns of de-legitimization. But when the de-legitimizer holds the reins of the power, that is very very dangerous. Thankfully we have moved away from this a bit, but we do not know what the future holds, so I say we have taken the first step, however we are still not completely over the crisis."

 

Retired Supreme Court Justice and former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz addressed the most important legal issue he said on the legal agenda: "Promoting and completing the Basic Law of Legislation is perhaps the most important legal project in years. It is critical to define the relationship between the legal system and the political public, but the desire to reach an optimal model in this matter is detached from reality. To cool the confrontations and settle the relationship is also worth paying a price for - and I do not think an override clause is a far-fetched idea." Although it is not acceptable in the wider world, in the Israeli reality of a faltering partial constitution that was adopted in an unusual process, it is not a bad solution for an interim period, until the constitution is perfect and stabilized.

Mazuz also referred to the allegations that the role of the Attorney General to the government should be split, which he strongly opposes: "The split will cause damage on almost every level. The first and perhaps most important thing is that it will immediately lead to the politicization of the position. Since the establishment of the state, the role of the attorney general has been built on the principle that it is an apolitical and independent professional, which is directly derived from the fact that he heads the criminal prosecution.

 

The Agranat Committee of 1962 determined that the role of the attorney general is a quasi-judicial role, which in its activities does not represent the government but the people, and therefore it is clear that it cannot be a political appointment. This is the barrier against the government's desire for years to appoint "our kind" of a "political adviser".

 

As a former Supreme Court justice, Mazuz came up with an interesting idea regarding the issue of ending the term of office of an elected and incumbent prime minister: "A decision by a professional echelon that is part of the executive branch, especially in the matter of termination of office, certainly raises difficulties. I believe that in today's reality the most correct and balanced solution is to revive the institution of the jury that existed in Israel until 1958 and was called 'early investigation'. Under the law at the time, in serious crime cases, the prosecutor could apply to the court and request a preliminary investigation - a procedure in which the hearing is held today, not before the prosecutor but before a special ad hoc court, only for this issue, maybe even Headed by a judge of the Supreme Court. It is before them the prosecution presents its case before the indictment is filed, the defendant presents his arguments against the indictment, and the court decides whether there is a basis for filing an indictment.

 

"In such a situation ostensibly, everyone gains: the defendant would not claim that the prosecution is persecuting him. No one will blame the prosecution - if they accept her position then it is not the one who overthrew the prime minister but a judicial decision, and also from the public's point of view it will increase his confidence in the decision, up to a certain extent."

 

Finally, Mazuz addressed the issue of the significant decline in trust in the court, emphasizing that it requires the court to exercise caution on the issues selected for the hearing: "My worldview is liberal, but I have never been a proponent of significant judicial activism. There are issues that the court needs to ask itself twice if it is right for it to intervene. The termination of the prime minister's tenure is a good example of that."

 

Minister of Communications Dr. Yoaz Hendel presented the greatest tasks and challenges that will face the Minister of Communications in the coming years. Minister Hendel referred to a committee he set up to examine regulation of digital giants such as Facebook, and responded to attacks on him that it was a step to block the right: "In the past there were bills that came mainly from the Likud that touched on Facebook and other platforms. I also heard the attack from opposition leader Netanyahu, who at the time argued that Facebook should be regulated when they blocked Trump's account. So this is probably a position and not an opposition. To date, this issue has not been addressed, and we have to breach the void. This is a government-wide challenge.

 

As far as the Ministry of Communications is concerned, the basic question is whether this is a media outlet. To date we have treated Facebook as an uninvolved platform - a postman who only delivers letters and is not responsible for their content, whether it is an explosive envelope or an envelope with threats. But if you refer to Facebook as a content editor, which makes sure that in your feed you see a certain content that will arouse a certain emotion in you, and trades your attention, then it is in fact an editor, like other media. Hence one comes to a different regulation - if Facebook is a media, should it be have to provide customer service like other media? If you are blocked on Facebook tomorrow morning, who do you contact? To whom will you appeal the decision, and in how long should you be given an answer? "

 

To the question of Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who moderated the interview, why not allow an appeal to court to remove offensive content, Hendel replied that "the State of Israel will engage in all of these questions, whether it is trade fairness and privacy protection. We are throwing the first stone, to discuss questions and create regulation." As for the cyber threats, the Minister of Communications said, "For a very long time we imposed regulation on huge companies because
we thought they were the weak link and that they would be attacked, but then we discovered that there are daily attacks on small companies as well. We understand today that Israel needs an iron dome in the cyber field as well. "