President Reuven Rivlin addressed the closing session of the 17th annual Herzliya Conference held at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya on Thursday. This year the conference addressed the opportunities and challenges Israel faced as it neared 70 years of independence.
The president's address dealt with the changes in the perception of democracy over the years, under different leadership, and reviewed these processes around the world with a focus on the Middle East.
Rivlin said, "As the Arab Spring began to blossom in late 2010, there were those who saw it as further testament that democracy can permeate even the most difficult places in the Middle East. The voice of the masses, of the Arab citizens began to be heard. Against tyranny and oppression, against backwardness and ignorance. In favor of representation and partnership, liberty, and freedom for women.
"Facebook and Twitter symbolized the revolution that began on their platforms, and reached the headlines. There, in the space between the virtual debate, and the town square, we saw the face of the promise of democracy, occupying the heart of the Middle East. With that said, the wings of democracy have been restrained."
He continued, "With the exception of Tunisia, which is fighting to continue in its direction, the Arab Spring has brought about great destruction, disappointment and despair. The collapse of the old national regimes has led the Middle East into chaos. A wave of radical terrorism has taken over this region, specifically led by the 'Islamic State' that has also had global reach.
"Half a million people have been killed in Syria, alongside a mass of refugees who have lost their entire world, and have created a wave of immigration that has brought on a global crisis. These waves have hit the Western world itself. All of the Western countries are facing the intensification of national, religious, and ethnic separatism, and the widening of the rift between the right and left."
In relation to the phenomenon of global terror, and the wave of immigration, the president said that many people were raising key questions around democracy. He said, "The younger generation that was born in this millennium is asking itself why they need the issues inherent to it," and added, "The foundation of these crises lies in a common element that we have not been able to discern. In certain situations the free open society, may be a real threat unto itself.
"What I mean to say is that freedom of expression and the right to vote are perhaps necessary conditions for the growth of democracy, but they are not enough. Democracy is not built in a day. It must be accompanied by the building of strong state institutions that place the rule of law above both the ruler and public opinion."
The President went on to say, "It is true that the Facebook and Twitter revolutions have given a voice to the muted masses. No more government newspapers which set the agenda. However, the enormous democratization of public discourse in social media has also created new types of demagoguery. If everyone is a journalist on his own accord, then the most respected newspaper is not preferable to the very last talk-back writer.
"We wanted to hear everyone, and we got the post-truth era, what is called today 'fake-news'. We wanted to give a platform, but we hurt solidarity. We wanted democracy, but we weakened it. When parties use social media mainly to humiliate, bash and ridicule, instead of developing contact with the public: what kind of democratic dream is it? I have said this in the past, and I will repeat this today: non-institutional democracy, a direct democracy in which the 'will of the people' at any moment overrides any other consideration, is just a step away from anarchy. Anyone who has ever encountered a crowd knows how that a small event can quickly turn into a lynching, and pogrom, literally."
In relation to the State of Israel, the President said, "There will be no Jewish State if there is no democratic State. The picture of reality that I laid out before you concerns the roots of the Israeli existence. Hence, we must look at the unique global challenges that lie at the doorstep of Israeli democracy today.
"Firstly, the challenge in creating of representative democracy. In Israel, as in the rest of the Western world, institutions and leadership must be strengthened. Woe unto us if the State of Israel is defined entirely as 'the State of the will of the people.' Woe unto us if the Israel Defense Forces becomes the 'army of the will of the people'; if the High Court rules its laws according to the 'Constitution of the People's Will', if we replace the Knesset with a referendum. We must strengthen the representative democratic institutions and their independence rather than weaken them."
He continued to note, "The second, unique challenge is to create a base of agreement and to manage the relations between the four tribes that comprise Israeli society. We must act to increase the trust of all the tribes the democratic institutions.
"According to the Israel Democracy Index, the Supreme Court enjoys the trust of 60 percent of the general public, compared to 6 percent of the ultra-Orthodox public. The Police have the trust of 41 percent of the general public, compared to 27 percent of the Arab public. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities make up 50 percent of the first graders today.
"Increasing the trust in the system of the various tribes, goes hand in hand with determined action to promote their proper representation within it, whether on the Judiciary bench, in the television studios, or in government offices. Representation is the first key to a sense of belonging and shared responsibility."
Rivlin concluded, "Finally, the third unique challenge is to preserve Jewish and democratic values in a state of protracted conflict. We must be vigilant, to examine ourselves every day and to make sure that amidst the tension in which we live, we are doing everything to protect our security as well as maintaining an uncompromising loyalty to ourselves and our values as a Jewish and democratic state.
"As in any place around the world, Israeli democracy cannot be taken for granted. The Jewish and democratic formula was and will remain the Zionist compass that has guided our way in the last seventy years against the background of a changing world, and will continue to guide our way in the future, at any time and in every situation."