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Israel Studies 5.1 (2000) 92-127

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The "Americanization" of Israeli Politics: Political and Cultural Change *

Myron J. Aronoff




IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Dramatic transformations of the Israeli political system and culture have taken place in the past decade. The introduction of internal party primaries and the direct election of the prime minister have contributed to decreasing party discipline among Knesset members, growing tension between the government and legislature, a dramatic decline in the parliamentary representation of the two major parties, and an increase in the representation of parties based on group identities and interests. These parties represent contesting visions of Israeli nationhood that directly challenge the traditional Zionist political culture, which has been hegemonic since before the birth of the state. Many of these changes have been attributed to "Americanization." 1

Israel is moving from the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy toward an American model characterized by (incomplete) separation of powers between the directly elected and stronger premier, a more fragmented and independent legislature, and a much more assertive and active judiciary--which, under the leadership of Chief Justice Aharon Barak, has adopted an American approach and agenda. 2 Two Basic Laws adopted in 1992 statutorily guarantee individual rights and thereby pave the way for the judicial review of legislation. 3 Gad Barzilai attributes the growing public status of the Israeli Supreme Court to fragmentation and polarization of the legislature and the executive and "a cultural Americanization and the prevalence of liberal values in some segments of Israeli society." 4 This movement from the European toward the American model is incomplete. The Israeli political system presently falls between the two. 5 In terms of political culture, Israelis tend to be less skeptical toward the state than Americans.

This is the second major transformation of Israel's party system in twenty-two years. The dominant party system led by Labor was established [End Page 92] in the 1930s and lasted until the critical 1977 election. 6 Menachem Begin's failure to establish Likud dominance resulted in the emergence of a polarized competitive party system with two major electoral blocs with sharply contrasting security policies. 7 The 1999 election may prove to be "critical," by having produced a significant and enduring realignment of parties in the increasingly fragmented Knesset, resulting in the construction of either narrow unstable coalitions or large internally divided coalitions that may threaten governability. 8


Globalization is popularly characterized in Israel as the Americanization of Israel and its desirability is hotly contested. 9 The term denotes the influence of American values on social, economic, cultural, and political institutions. The implication is that the diffusion of influence and values comes directly and exclusively from the United States. In fact, influence is mainly indirect and much more complex. A combination of diverse international and regional influences interact with competing domestic interests and forces. Despite a trend that moves Israel closer to the American model, the continuity of uniquely Israeli political and cultural patterns is noteworthy. "For better or worse, the American model stimulates a powerful desire for emulation--and with good reason. The accompanying image of power, abundance, and success adds spice to the resulting imitation and is reinforced as the American orientation increasingly penetrates Israeli political culture, supplanting traditional European inclinations." 10

Not all change is identified explicitly as Americanization. Michael Keren identifies the "new politics" with post-material norms, cognitive mobilization (media manipulation), and pragmatism--modeled on or influenced by the United States. For both the Likud's Netanyahu and Labor's Peres, "the conception of the United States as a role model for Israel was the same." 11 Yael Yishai suggests that Israel is in a transitory phase between the old-style and the new politics associated with aZuence, value changes, the decline of the conventional parties and the rise of new ones, the rise of social movements and participatory behavior, and a change in the political agenda. 12 Uri Ram, analyzing the double challenge of global consumer culture and local identity culture, notes the transition from a focus on parties to a focus on...


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