Forget About Jewish or Democratic. Is Israel Even an Actual Country?


Yuli Tamir | Haaretz - TRANSCEND Media Service

12 Oct 2020 – Many people have been wondering recently whether Israel is a democratic country or a Jewish and democratic one. Or has Israel’s democracy been eroded perhaps, turning it into an autocratic country?

I would like to ask a much simpler question. Is Israel a country? Based on the accepted (and most simplistic) definition, a country is a sovereign political organization that controls a defined territory. Its inhabitants are subject to a common authority and are governed by an independent government with the right to establish diplomatic relations or to declare war against other sovereign countries.

Israel does not meet these basic conditions. It does not have a defined territory: As long as its northern and eastern borders have not been approved on a final basis, Israel is a political entity whose territory is subject to domestic and external dispute. Secondly, Israel lacks a source of authority accepted by all of its citizens.

And third, Israel’s political independence is limited and is dependent in large measure on the policy of its ally – the United States. The challenge of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic highlights these three deficiencies.

Territorial sovereignty

When the pandemic erupted Israel, like all other countries in the world, closed its borders. In doing so, it left a substantial portion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the other side of the fence – an overt expression of the fact that those territories are not an indivisible part of the country’s sovereign territory. Israel has not included Palestinian residents of the Palestinian Authority and of Gaza in the tally of those infected, has not admitted patients from the territories to hospitals in Israel, and made a clear distinction between residents of the Palestinian area and residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

That is an indication that although it doesn’t acknowledge it, Israel views itself as in practice having territorial sovereignty only within its pre-Six-Day War 1967 borders. At the same time, Israel has signed a peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates that includes a commitment not to annex the territories in the near future, which underscores recognition of the fact that its sovereign borders, as well the application of Israeli law, remain unresolved.

Source of authority

During the coronavirus pandemic, the debate over the source of authority has come into sharper focus, teaching us what we’ve actually known for a long time: There is no single source of authority in Israel. The various tribes rely on different sources.

A portion of the population, primarily the country’s secular population, and part of the religious-Zionist community, rely, as in many countries around the world, on fundamental basic laws and balance them with an outlook involving personal liberty and the individual right to free speech. Another portion, primarily Arab society, abides by the law but balances it with a no less important source of authority – custom, culture and tradition. And the third portion, mainly the ultra-Orthodox community and part of the religious-Zionist population, place rabbinical authority above that of the state.

Secular Israelis are concerned about losing their person freedoms and are seeking to protest and to act based on their own judgment. The Arabs are demanding to be allowed to preserve their communal and family traditions, while the ultra-Orthodox, who have always viewed Jewish religious law as taking precedence over the state, are conducting themselves based on guidance from their rabbis and are afraid only of Judgment Day.

Because since Israel’s founding it has not had a constitution, the battle over Israel’s source of authority has not ended. And because they haven’t gotten used to respecting the state as the supreme source of authority, the groups all feel that any limitation imposed on them is part of an attempt to dictate a new division of authority that places them in an inferior position.

In such a state of affairs, the government’s sovereignty is being eroded, and it cannot make decisions and enforce them. Defiance of government directives has put the limits of compliance in clearer relief – on the part of secular Israelis in the name of freedom, on the part of the Arabs in the name of tradition and communal identity, and on the part of the ultra-Orthodox in the name of the sanctification of the Almighty.

Each of these groups encourages disobedience, which becomes a way of accentuating the core of their group identity. The lack of willingness to compromise is an indication of the importance of the core principles to their members.

Sovereignty and international independence

The State of Israel does not have the capacity to establish diplomatic relations with other sovereign countries without the consent of the United States. An indication of that is the practical elimination of the Israel Foreign Ministry and the unique manner in which Israeli foreign relations are conducted between Jerusalem and Washington. One side asks and the other side responds and dictates policy, even when it comes to agreements that compromise on Israeli interests. It’s no wonder that Israel’s peace agreements going back in time have been advanced, drafted, approved and signed in Washington. It would be inconceivable for Israel to go to war without American consent or for it to face such hostilities without American weapons and support.

In the absence of domestic authority over its citizens or externally in the world, without having set agreed upon borders and a defined territory and without external sovereignty, Israel does not meet the most basic definitions of the concept of a country. Granted that it has its own currency, army, public institutions, and a flag and national anthem, but that is not enough to be a regular country.

There are three valuable lessons that can be learned from this. The first is that not all of the problems that Israel has been dealing with stem from the Prime Minister’s official residence. Secondly, questions that appear theoretical and that most Israelis don’t attach major importance to influence our daily behavior and undermine our ability to act as a country. Third, which is perhaps the good news, is that we have an obligation – which is also an opportunity – to reestablish the country.

When the pandemic is over, Israel will have to deal with the sources of its weakness. It will have to develop a consensus regarding the source of authority (and regarding autonomy for the various communities) and define its borders and its relations with the world. If it does not do so, Israel will continue to be a “conditional” country, the main threat to the existence of which is not the undermining of its legitimacy by its adversaries but its inability to define its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.


Prof. Yuli Tamir is a former education minister from the Labor Party. 

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