Understanding Israel

Das Amphitheater der Hebräischen Universität in Jerusalem, Israel

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We traveled to Israel and spoke with Prof. Dr. Gideon Rahat from the Hebrew University Jerusalem about Politics, Parties and Cleavages within Israeli society. It was an very interesting and insightful conversation.


I enter the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus through the main entrance and the security check. I walk through the botanical garden, which is a small paradise in spring. It is march and the temperature is about 20°C. I enter the first building of the University and I am looking for Prof. Gideon Rahats office. I get lost, but then a nice employee of the University shows me the way.

When I enter the office of Prof. Rahat, he looks tired and is probably exhausted from his class. During the interview, however, I can feel, that he is in his element.

Prof. Dr. Gideon Rahat

Prof. Dr. Gideon Rahat is Professor for Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and he is also senior associate at the Israel Democracy Institute, where he heads a project on reforms of the Israeli democratic institutions.

He was born in Jerusalem, and lived as he pointed out, all his life in Israel. He sees himself as a left-wing secular Jew, who, like everyone else, served in the military. He lived a pretty Israelian life.

We meet Prof. Rahat to talk with him about Israel as a state. We aim to provide basic knowledge about Israel and the standpoint of a political scientist, who is an expert on Israel. So we ask a lot of different questions to give an inside in different areas of Israels democracy and political system.

The Interview

U: What kind of democracy is Israel?

GR: Basically, Israel is a democracy as long as you look within the green line. And as long as you use universal indicators, and there are e.g. Freedom House or Polity, that define, if a country is free or not. According to them, Israel is to be considered a free country. Not as free as other democracies, European democracies, but much freer and much more democratic than most of the countries of the world.

U: Why then, is there a debate about Israel being a democracy?

GR: The main issue in Israel, the main difficulty in Israel, is the relationship between the Jewish majority (about 75-80% of the population) and the non-Jewish minority, of which approximately 20% are Arabs, most of them Muslims. One of the issue is the relationship between the majority and the minority. The question here is probably if there is equality between the two of them.

And there is also history. Israel was established after a war between the Jews and the Arabs or the Palestinians that lived here. So, there is still a historical burden and we have also to remember that the Palestinians in Israel belong ethnically to the Arabs (so they define themselves) and Israel had conflicts from day one with the Arabs. So, it’s about conflict on the one hand and an attempt to live democratically and to create democracy.

Probably these days Germans and other Europeans can understand the problem. They can understand the issue and see that there is a lot of terrorism and that has to do with a specific religion or ethnic group, but still, you won’t give up of your democracy and all of your liberal values when you have to fight terrorism, because the goal of terrorism is that you become non-democratic.

The Israelis lived with this dilemma all over the years and they still struggle with this issue. And we do not always win, sometimes we lose in a sense that we give up some of our liberal values or democratic freedoms. This is a challenge: how to balance between the security threat and liberal values? You have to remember, a country has to supply security for its citizens, that’s the basic idea of a state according to Max Weber. But then, when you live in a country and want it to be a liberal democracy and force must be restraint, it must be used as little as possible.

So, this is the problem with the Israeli democracy. And it is not only the threats that come from outside, from some of the Arab countries, from terrorism. There are also the reactions from the inside. The actions, how the Isreali elite or the majority reacts to these challenges. Whether they are ready to give up the democracy or not. This is the ongoing struggle.

U: Why is the Israeli Party-system so fractured?

GR: You can give several explanations. You have a society in which you have many social rifts or cleavages between Jews and Arabs, between religious and secular Israelis, traditional, orthodox and ultra-orthodox. You have rifts between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, that means Jew from European or Spanish-North-African-Middle-Eastern descent. You have ideological rifts, rifts that have to do with immigration. You have so many social rifts and the highly proportional electoral system allows them, to take these rifts and translate them into political parties.

Thus, you have a party for the ultraorthodox Ashkenazi Jews and ultraorthodox Mizrahi Jews, a party for the religious Muslims and a party for the communist Arabs. You have so many political parties and all of them represent probably a special faction within the factions of society. Now, we have a moderate threshold of 3,25% but until now, we had very low electoral threshold.

Once you have representation, it goes back to society, because political parties have an interest in survival, so they need to justify their separate existence.

U: Do you think, a simpler party system is needed and how could such a system evolve in Israel?

GR: Democratic politics is all about the aggregation of interests. So, at the end of the day, we are all individuals and the system have to aggregate our interests as voters. And it can be done within parliament or before entering parliament.

Politicians and small political parties need incentives to merge before elections. So, they will do the aggregation at the level of the party and not at the level of the parliament or coalition. If we have large blocks, with different interests and different representations of different groups, people will go to election and they will be more informed about the possible coalition that is going to rule.

And once we have this, I think we might have somewhat better governance, because once again, I think people should be represented, every individual, but the aggregation of interest should be done at the level of the parties. Because theoretically if you want to represent all the people, you can decide that the parliament is in the size of the citizenry, but it cannot work. And the same is true if you want a government to work, it cannot work effectively and efficiently with so many parties. Are the people really represented if there are too many small parties?

U: What would be the consequences, if Israel would annex settlements and outposts in the West Bank?

GR: Well, if Israel will annex the territories it will have to give the Palestinians, who live there, full rights. And then, Israel will likely stop being a state with a clear Jewish majority. So, if the idea of establishing Israel was a national home for the Jewish people, that’s gone.

The other option is not to give them full rights and then you stop being democratic, because you rule people who live there and you don’t give them civil rights, then you become a non-democratic state. That is a real problem and there are several solutions to this problem.

One solution is the two-state solution, the second is, people now talking about the Belgium solution. That means, two states on one territory. That is very interesting, it is very appealing, but at the end the question is, once again, going back to Max Weber’s definition of a state: who is going to have the monopoly on force? Would you have some joint police, a joint military? Or if you wouldn’t have so, what would you have? I think, that’s the main issue. Maybe it is not a big issue, maybe the Palestinians will say okay we are good with police. I don’t know, I don’t know what to tell you.

Some people think about it, and it might be an interesting solution to have two states on one territory. But there are too many problems on the way and for myself I think, that the two-state solution is the best solution. But with all the settlements and the way the Palestinians behave? The Palestinians are divided and although I really support the two-state solution, I really don’t think it is in the interest of the Palestinians or whether they see it in their interest.

I mean, they can only sit and wait and the one state solution might actually work for them. Paradoxically, the solution of the Israeli right will work for the benefit of the Palestinians. I don’t know who has which interest. It is difficult.

And you also must remember that until now, we don’t see any good experience with the peace agreement with the Palestinians. The peace with Egypt is good and with Jordan it is for both sides good. But with the Palestinians it doesn’t seem to work.

I am pessimistic. But if I see it from the point of Israeli interests, I think annexation would be a mistake.

U: What do you think of BDS Supporters and settlement boycott supporters being banned from entering Israel?

GR: If someone is boycotting the settlements it is one thing, that is about policies and this is something that can be legitimate. BDS is something else, BDS is not about the territories, BDS is about Israel. So, to go against the legitimacy of the state of Israel, I think, the state of Israel has the right to fight back.

I don’t really appreciate BDS and what they are doing. I think, criticizing Israel is okay, its legitimate. I do it as well, and I think everybody has the right to criticize Israel. But you have to have some kind of proportion. If you don’t have proportion, you play to the hand of those who say Israel should not be criticized. For example: Many people in Israel say, BDS for example, you are so nice people and you’re bleeding hart, but what about Syria? You don’t give a damn about the Syrians? With all due respect to the Israelis and the rule in the territories, but the Israeli rule in the territories is hundred times more humanistic than Assad and ISIS. That doesn’t say that the Israeli control of the territories is humanistic. Not at all, I wouldn’t like to live there. But if you are cosmopolitan and humanistic if you look around the world, and if you are picking only Israel, it doesn’t look good.

As an Israeli I must say, that something bothers me, as a secular Israeli, from the elite, from what I call the old elite of Israel. I look at BDS and other groups that are after Israel, I see cooperation between extreme Islamists and left wingers.

I cannot understand how a left winger can go with extreme Islamists, which are religious people. Because it is against all the ideas of the left, going against fundamentalism of whatever religious it is. Once they join these forces, the left must remember that they will lose. I think they not only lose credit.

I watched a movie about the revolution in Iran 1979, it was about liberals, communists and Islamist against the Shah. The Shah was a dictator. And then, the revolution was over and the Islamist took the communist and the liberals and put them in jail. So, I think, if you are a real leftist and you have legitimate and true criticism on Israel, then you have to do it from the point of your values and not joining forces with Islamists, which one day, might turn on you and are much worse than Israel.

Also, it plays to the hands of extremists in Israel, because they say: look who is criticising us. Criticism from Angela Merkel or from the social democrats in Germany is much more worth than the criticism from BDS and other extremist, that is playing in the hand of the other side’s extremists.

U: What changed after Trump took office and what changed within the Israeli debate?

GR: People thought that Trump would allow Israel much more freedom in the territories and that is how it sounded, but now it sounds differently. I must say, all the people who are trying to understand what Trump might think or what he might do or what his policies are – they don’t know anything because he don’t know anything. I think he has no policies. He is playing still in a reality show and I don’t have an idea, what he is going to do. Maybe one day, he will have a policy, but until now, it is unclear.

Israeli right wingers hope that Trump is going to change American policies, but now it looks like he is not going to change it – I really don’t know. I am not sure about anything and nobody knows what is going on. That’s how it is with Trump.

In Israel, the problem with the two-state solution is, that many people support it as a pragmatic solution to the problem of keeping a Jewish and democratic state. However, some people would argue, that although the two-state solution might be the best solution, it is impossible. Because, once you have a Palestinian state, it would be a failed state, it would be a state which wouldn’t have the monopoly on force, it would be a state in which you would have extremist like ISIS, HAMAS and so on. These people have very strong examples for it. They have the Gaza strip, with all the people in the strip, there is a humanitarian disaster – they still support HAMAS. Maybe they support them, because of the disaster, maybe there is a vicious circle, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter for the Israelis. For their feeling of security. They say: If we would give up the territory of Judaea and Samaria, we would get another Gaza. It would not be far in the south, but it would be near the airport and the center. So, the Palestinians give many Israelis reasons not to trust their ability to have a strong and viable democratic state. They have so many problems, for example a lot of corruption.

Many Israelis lose hope and thus many of them think that the current situation might be the best for Israel.

U: What do you think about the corruption allegations against Benjamin Netanjahu?

GR: I think it is awful! We need to look at it and if it is true, he has to be kicked out. And he wouldn’t be the first. We already have a prime minister, a president and a treasury minister who sat in jail in Israel. You may claim: Oh it’s a corrupted country, but on the other hand, we at least can say, that we are taking these people and put them were they should be: in jail.

Corruption is tricky. Sometimes people think you don’t have corruption, if you don’t cope with it. So, I must say: it’s true, we have a lot of corruption, but we still deal with it and we investigate it. It’s a reason to be ashamed and a reason to be proud at the same time.

I will say for your German audience, I believe that if you would look at some of the blackboxes in German politics, you might find something.
(Hyperlinks to corruption cases in Germany).

U: What need German readers to know about Israel in a nutshell?

GR: It’s a complicated society with many forces, all of the forces that run the world seems to be in Israel, too. Forces described in The Lexus and the Olive tree by Thomas Friedmann, or Jihad versus McWorld by Benjamin Barber, or modernity vs. tradition. These forces are here, conflicting with each other, trying to live with each other. That’s the story of Israel.

And those who support the idea that Jews should have a state, but still are critical about the territories, I think they should be smart in the way how they criticise Israel. They should really make a point that they believe in the existence of Israel and its security and then express their deep, deep criticism about their policies. People will listen to them.

If you get criticism together with support, you listen to it. And many people would listen to it and it would be a very effective pressure. That’s in a nutshell, in term of what’s going on in Israel and behaving towards Israel.

And for the Germans themselves, with the question of migration, they now can understand the problem of coping with these problems. E.g. from the left, you want to accept people as such, but from a leftist point of view, you cannot accept some things, that have to do with tradition, like the status of women, or other things. These are the everyday issues in Israel. Not only between Jews and Arabs also between Jews themselves and Arabs themselves.

U: Is it a paradise for social scientists?

GR: Yes. If you want to live in Israel and you have the Ying and Yang. To be a citizen and a political scientist. If it is bad for you as a citizen it is probably good for you as a political scientist, for your research.

U: You collect little figures of politicians, why?

GR: Collecting is good for my mental health. It’s good to collect something. When we were kids, all of us, we were collecting something. I think it’s good for me. Moreover, it is very interesting, because it’s not easy to find. It’s about surfing the internet or going to other countries and looking for it. I hope one day, I will have a very nice collection and open it to the public.

If someone would do more about it, I think it’s a nice way to teach people about things, it’s a nice way to look at things. In my collection I have many dolls, there are historical ones, who make fun of things. And some are just funny. For me it’s just nice to collect this. It’s fun for me.

I even have Angela Merkel, but until lately, Germans wouldn’t have any dolls. Because after your trauma, Germans haven’t any kind of dolls of politicians. I found some, but that was in the United States. But now, there are some Angela Merkel dolls and they make fun of her, in a nice way.

In Switzerland, you cannot really have a doll of a Swiss president, because they rotate and every year there is someone new – so I use Wilhelm Tell as my Swiss doll. (Here you get an impression of the collection)

U: What book can you recommend, if people would like to get an introduction to Israel’s politics and political system?

GR: I would let them read Gregory Mahlers Politics and Government in Israel: The Maturation of a Modern State. This is the most basic book, but it is a political science book. Another one, which is very good, and there should be also an English version of it soon, is Yitzhak Galnoor and Dana Blander The Political System of Israel

U: Thank you for this interesting Interview.

GR: Thank you.

Note: This Interview was conducted in March 2017

The book recommendations by Prof. Rahat:

Blander: The Political System of Israel

Mahler: Politics and Government in Israel

Moreover, we can also recommend the Handbook of Israel, read our review in English.


  1. Interessant zu dem Thema finde ich auch die, zum Teil sehr persönlich geschriebenen, Essays von Eva Illouz, die in dem Bändchen namens „Israel“ veröffentlicht wurden.

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