- Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society by Brent E. Sasley and Harold M. Waller
Israel may have created the most enigmatic of democratic political systems in the world. The more people read or hear about it, particularly in Western media, the harder it is to evaluate, though there is no shortage of so-called experts urging the country to improve its politics by adopting more American practices (i.e., before the 2016 presidential campaign called that reasoning into alarming question). Still, most accounts of Israel see its electoral system as the principal cause of its problems by facilitating the formation of so many political parties standing for election that well-organized minorities typically enter the governing coalition and presumably hijack public policy.
Nothing is more conventional than this wisdom about Israel, a tiny country drawing an enormous amount of the world’s attention. What happens there means a lot to many people in the United States and around the world because the country has become a template for how people think about religion, citizenship, ethnic and national conflict, and above all, for how they think about Jews. Sadly, the understanding of Israel’s politics is not matched by the interest in it. To some, the country seems a permanent feature of civilization gone wrong; to others, a defining characteristic of [End Page 680] advancement. The gap between the epic almost mythological narratives and those that condemn the country as criminal and savage is rarely bridged even by those books possessing scholarly credentials.
Politics in Israel reminds us of the distortions in these widely divergent narratives but more importantly, it does something quite different: it stresses how often the country is caught facing less than ideal alternatives and why its attention is overwhelmingly drawn to the tactics of balancing a number of competing interests. Moreover, it dismantles the commonplace notion that because Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is the country’s most important unresolved issue, it is imprinted on every aspect of the political system.
Harold Waller and Brent Sasley do not gloss over Israel’s conflicts with the Palestinians, but they do explain why they are not always a top issue for governments or citizens to engage. And because they write with great authority, it is important first to think about how they acquired that authority, for it says a great deal about them and about the current status of the academic study of Israel.
Waller and Sasley, once professor and student, met again as participants in Brandeis University’s Schusterman Israeli Studies Summer Institute, a program that has brought over 250 academicians from across the globe to develop courses, in all disciplines, on the Jewish state. The program can take credit for helping expand the quantity and quality of courses on Israel, and it can now take pride in helping to encourage a collaboration that has produced what is likely to become the standard text on Israeli politics for universities and colleges.
When Waller and Sasley pondered the idea of writing Politics in Israel, they intended to create “a text that was readable, touched on major contemporary issues and debates in Israeli politics, and did so by grounding … [the] explanation in a historical-sociological approach that emphasized the processes that led to the creation of the Israeli political system and continue to influence the conduct of Israeli politics” (p. xviii). It can be said, quite emphatically, that they accomplished their aims.
As Waller and Sasley demonstrate, when the Provisional Government proclaimed in 1948 the establishment of a Jewish state, its members accepted a theory of government with which they were familiar. Elections, multiple political parties, coalitions of leaders representing and blending multiple ideologies could hardly have seemed alien. Yet, a new force was given to these familiar institutions by marking them as expressions of sovereignty and as instruments of the state’s national identity; Jewish and democratic. Partly through structural organization and partly through a reworking of their founding principles, Israelis have developed a political system that serves...