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Duration: 00:28:06



Transcript of Israel In Depth podcast

Host: Dov Waxman

Guest: Gal Ariely,


Dov Waxman: Welcome to Israel in Depth, where scholars, policymakers, and leading experts come to discuss topics about Israel in depth. You're listening to a podcast by the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA. I'm Dov Waxman, the director of the Nazarian Center and the host of this podcast. Joining me for this episode of Israel in Depth is Gal Ariely. He's a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. And his new book, Israel's Regime Untangled: Between Democracy and Apartheid, has just been published by Cambridge University Press. Welcome to Israel in Depth. So let me begin by asking you, why did you write this book? What was your motivation for writing this book?

Gal Ariely: I like this question. I think that -- when you look at the case of Israel as someone who is engaged in Israel, or as a scholar or who is interested in the Israeli case, or someone like me who lives in Israel and who is deeply influenced by her politics in many spheres of life. It's sort of a puzzle. It's sort of a puzzle because when you look at Israel, there are many questions that you don't -- at least I don't have very clear answers to them. And I wanted to use my knowledge as a political scientist who works in the field of comparative politics and studies of regime and to see to what extent, or in what way, I can use this knowledge in order to better understand the Israeli case. Not only the classification of the regime, but also to what extent the knowledge that we have in political science about the nature of regimes. Their stabilities, their changes in regimes can better help us to clarify the Israeli case. This was my original motivation in trying to write this book. And I have to admit that although I just published it a two weeks ago, it's still a positive case. I'm not sure that I revealed most of the of the puzzle, but at least I tried to shed light on some aspects on the Israeli regime.

Waxman: So in your book, I think what it seems that you're trying to do is to is to reframe the the current debate that's been going on both in Israel and overseas, including within academia, the debate over whether Israel is in fact, a democracy. I mean, there's this ongoing debate over Israel's democratic status, a debate that has flared up in the news recently, following the recent report by the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, which I'm sure, you know, which came out and said that Israel is essentially an apartheid regime. Now, how does your book try to reframe this debate? Or what in your view is wrong with the way the debate over whether Israel's a democracy is currently held?

Ariely: Well, as you clarify, the debate or the way to classify the Israeli regime is not new. It's going on in the literature for more than I know -- like 30 years. There are very different classifications. Go all the way from a democracy, illiberal democracy, or some diminished type of democracy, and all the way up to different versions of non-democracy regimes like an apartheid regime. And I think that when you look on all these classifications, and you go just through the literature, and different ways scholars have tried to address the Israeli case, you can find that in most cases -- not all cases, of course, but in most cases -- it seems that the way the regime is classified is a little bit detached from political science literature's about how we classify regime from the first place. And when you try to connect the debate for the current understanding of the regime classification in comparative politics literature, you find that in many ways, the attempt to offer an overall definition of a regime is problematic by itself. It's problematic by itself because, in many ways, the concept of democracy by itself. Again, it's the most important concept in political science, probably was one of the most important concepts in political science. But it also it has some inherent weaknesses, at least analytical weaknesses, because in the political science literature, regardless of the Israeli case, there is a very long debate about how we should classify democracy from the first place. And I've tried in the book to show that any attempt to offer a definite definition of the regime overlooks the ways, the current standing of regimes, the current standing of democracy in political science. So in a sense, I'm not trying to offer a correct definition of the regime, because I don't think that there is a possibility for a methodological point of view. Instead, I offer to look at it in different ways or in different framing of the debate from the beginning - from the outset.

Waxman: Right. So if I'm understanding the question that's often asked, you know, is Israel a democracy or not? This can be framed in either-or terms...is the wrong kind of question. Instead of trying to make a decision, yes, Israel is a democracy. No, it isn't. We should really be asking, in what respects is Israel a democracy? Or how democratic is Israel, rather than whether or not. And so your book is focusing on on the degrees of Israel's democracy, or its dimensions of democracy rather than a kind of either or proposition. It is or isn't that democratic. Is that is that correct?

Ariely: Yeah, because, again, from a political point of view -- and when you look on from a normative point of view, from a political point of view -- it's very reasonable to ask if a country is a democracy or not, because it has a lot of political normative implications. But if you want to analyze the regime, not just to give it a name, not just to use the name, in order to justify or condemn the regime. If you want to understand the regime, the either note -- perceptions or the attempt to offer a unique name to the Israeli case -- have limits. I don't think it's wrong. I don't think it's wrong to offer classification of the regime. Again, the literature on the different classification have, of the Israeli regime, have a lot of merits. But in a way, the ability to use it in order to explain an aspect of the regime, is a bit limited. So what I propose is, instead of a clear definition of the regime, I propose to look on the level of 'democraticness' of the regime. The level of extent it is a democracy across different dimensions of democracy. Across different spheres of democracy. Across different aspects of democracy. And also across different zones of control. Because one of the debate, which is very clear in the Israeli case, is a question what exactly is the border of the regime? There are different answers to the question. And, of course, different answers lead to different classification of the regime from the outset. So I propose just to disentangle, disaggregate the perceptions of the old regime to different spheres, different level of 'democraticness' lists, and different zones of control.

Waxman: So I'm just picking up this different zones of control. And I think you're alluding to the distinction, if you like between the regime within Israel proper or within the green line, and the regime in the occupied territories, in the West Bank, and East Jerusalem and maybe Gaza Strip as well. So do you then distinguish between these as two distinct regimes? The regime within the green line...the one Israel...and the regime, an Israeli regime, but a distinct regime from in the occupied territories?

Ariely: Well, I think that the key to understanding where exactly is the Israeli regime is to offer a very, very delicate distinction from the outset, form control, and influence. If you look on all the entire territory, what the so-called between the Jordan and the sea -- Israel/Palestine -- you can see that it's a zone where there is direct control of Israel in what is called Israel proper, in East Jerusalem, and also in most of the part of the “C” zone in the West Bank where Israel has actual direct control. But when it comes to Gaza, and to some extent, also the Palestinian enclaves under the control of the Palestinian Authority, there is a very, very strong Israeli influence. But it's not direct control. It's something else. So the level of 'democraticness' of the regime is different in Israel proper. It's different in East Jerusalem and “C” zone. And I think that Gaza is out of the definition of the regime. Again, a lot of influence of the regime, but not direct control. And when it comes to the Palestinian enclave, again, it's an indirect control. So I'm not sure it's part of the regime....

Waxman: So in that sense, you would reject the kind of, you know, claim that's often made today that there's a one-state reality between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. That effectively, there was only one state. Well, your analysis is kind of looking at this as a range of influence -- from direct control to indirect influence.

Ariely: I'm not totally rejecting the idea of one-state reality because it really depends on how you understand the state. Right? It will depend on how you define a state from the outset. If you understand a state is a mechanism of bureaucratic control. So in a sense, Israel has influence also in the some aspects of the Palestinians enclaves, and also, to some extent, also some aspects of the Gaza...in the Gaza Strip, and it's so much stronger democratic control on East Jerusalem and on “C” zone. But it's not clear cut because I think that's describing all the territory Gaza,  Nablus, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and West Jerusalem, as one state. Again, it's maybe has some important political implications. But from an analytical point of view, it really overlooks differences, which I think, are very relevant to understanding the regime between these spheres of influence and control. So I don't think there is a clear-cut border that you can say this is Israel proper; this is a regime which is outer. And also there is not a very clear-cut border between a one-state reality in all the territory, including Gaza and the Palestinians enclave as it was before the....

Waxman: So I wonder, I mean, extending this, this analysis to think about, you know, degrees of control and the extent of bureaucratic control. Could you not go even further and say the same holds true even within Israel proper? I mean, you can take certain areas where the ultra-orthodox reside. And we've seen over the last number of months in Israel, where the resistance to members of the ultra-orthodox community to some of the regulations and restrictions imposed by the ..battling the COVID pandemic, that even within Israel itself, there are limits to the Israeli state's bureaucratic control over certain parts.

Ariely: Well, I think that most states control or the ability of states to now commonly described as state capacity. The idea of states to implement policy, not only in Israel, but in many other countries, especially not countries which are in dispute... change between the center and the periphery and between different groups in society. It's not something which is unique to Israel. But there should be a distinction between the capacity to implement public policy and the level of 'democraticness'. The level of democraticness' is the same, by in large, for the ultra-orthodox and for the non-orthodox inside Israel proper and also outside Israel proper in the settlements -- the orthodox settlements in the occupied territories. When it comes to 'democraticness' in the spheres of political competition instead of limited illiberal rights, some of them exist in Israel. And it's different from the ability of the state to implement their policy.

Waxman: I see - that's an important distinction. So in terms of this 'democraticness,' in what areas, in what domains do you see, do you think Israel's democratic is strongest, is most democratic? And in what areas or domains is it weakest?

Ariely: Well, as previous analyses have already shown, and I am not saying anything new here. The stronger aspect of the Israeli democracy it's in the level of the political competition, in the inclusiveness of the election. Again, I'm talking only on the aspect of the regime, which is allowing people to petition. I'm not including East Jerusalem or zone “C” which are part of the regime. I'm talking only on this first, well, from the outset, there is a possibility of political competition. And this is the strongest aspect of the Israeli democracy. And when you go and look on, for example, on the liberal aspect of the Israeli democracy on the....you explore the defense of citizens against the state. The liberal aspect of democracy. It's much more weaker. We have for many of course, many aspects. The liberal aspects or the liberal elements of the Israeli democracy are much more limited. And when you look at the extent to which there is coverage ....to what extent the entire population can participate in the political process and enjoy protection from the state without segmentation and securitization. This is the lowest aspect of Israel democracy when it comes to questions of the relation between Jews and Arabs in Israel proper. These are the most lowest levels of democracy. And again, of course, they're quite stable. There are some changes, but they are quite stable. And again, we have an election next week in Israel, so we can see that there is also some ongoing decline in the liberal aspect of democracy in the last 10 years, 5 years. Depends how you exactly define it. But by and large, these three dimensions there's a gap between them, but they're rather stable across the years.

Waxman: So that was - you anticipated my next question. I was...I mean....myself and others have written about a kind of process of democratic backsliding occurring in Israel. A term that political scientists have used to describe developments in places like Hungary and Turkey and Poland, India, even the United States. Do you agree with this? Or are you saying that, actually, you know, Israel, Israeli democracy has always been illiberal in terms of the rights or freedoms of the individual? But really, it's actually been, it's actually fairly stable. And these concerns are exaggerated about democratic backsliding.

Ariely: I think it's a very, very good question. And I've a seminar with my students under the title, "Is Israel's Democracy Backsliding?" And we are debating this question for two years by now. And I think that it's really depends how you understand backsliding or democratic backsliding from the beginning. As you know, it's not a solid concept in the literature. And even different definitions or different understanding of what democratic backsliding would lead to different results. So I'm not sure that we can say, yes, there is democratic backsliding in Israel, to the extent that there was in Turkey for sure, or even to the extent that we can locate in Hungary or even in Poland. I'm not sure this is the case. I think it's much, much more debatable. But from the outset, the concept of democratic backsliding, in a way, assumes liberal democratic forms from the first place. There was some advancements like in the 90s of the last century. And one might wonder if what we see now in Israel in the last few years is a democratic backsliding or just a backlash against the liberal forces that try to reshape the country. So I'm not sure it's a democratic backsliding, or just a debate between very ... some aspects of the Israeli regime.

Waxman: So you mentioned that the upcoming election and one of the claims that that have been made by competitors to (Benjamin) Netanyahu is that, you know, Netanyahu is a threat to Israeli democracy. And that this is you know, not just a competition, a political competition between, you know, different political parties, but between kind of democrats and...in Netanyahu's case it would be autocrat. Do you think that there...that's misplaced? That in fact, you know, the 10 years that Netanyahu has been in power haven't really...he hasn't really threatened Israeli democracy in the way that his critics suggest he has?

Ariely: I think that there are different ways to understand this question. One way would argue that maybe Netanyahu is a threat to Israel's democracy, but he's no different than previous prime ministers, which were by and large -- the popular ones (those who hold power for a long time) weren't, I would say, motivated by democratic reasoning. If you compare some incidents of Netanyahu to (Ariel) Sharon. Even to previous prime ministers, you wouldn't find that they were motivated by the need to strengthen democracy. You know, it's a bit funny because these days, there's a lot of nostalgia to Menachem Begin, who is now portrayed as a big democrat. But when Menachem Begin came to power, the Israeli elites viewed him as a direct threat to democracy. And the perception was that if Begin will rule, Israel democracy, or at least the democratic aspect of Israel (because I'm not trying to say that Israel is a democracy). But the democratic aspects that are in Israel will be ruined by Begin because he's a populist, and he's etc, etc. And we know that, at least in these aspects of Israel's democracy, there was an improvement after Begin's period. So this is one way to understand that. It's in a way, a nostalgic view of those who worry that Netanyahu...some believe that they were more democratic than he. Another way to understand it that perhaps Netanyahu is just unmasking the illiberal, undemocratic aspect of the Israeli regime in a much bolder way than previous prime minister or previous political elites. So it's not Netanyahu itself. It is this regime, which again when someone has a grip on power for a long time, he can advance these aspects which are at the heart of this regime. Like the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which again, it wasn't a project of Netanyahu. It was a project that started with Tzipi Livni in Kadima -- or Tzipi Livni was one of the advocates for that. So it's not necessary Netanyahu itself. Another way to think about it, it's perhaps Netanyahu because of a unique situation and because the allegation he's facing to, might be the trigger, might be the actor that will enable the forces that don't like the liberal aspect of Israeli democracy, or the advances that there were in the position in the status of the high court to change these aspects of a regime and to create backsliding -- not in the entire regime, but at least in this aspect, and especially when it comes to the status of the court. So I don't think there is a simple answer to this question.

Waxman: But I think you're absolutely right that that we shouldn't really focus exclusively on Netanyahu or see him as somehow a unique threat to Israeli democracy or the great risk to it. That there are deeper forces that play, and there are other groups that certainly, when it comes to the power of the Supreme Court, have long wanted to reduce the Supreme Court's power. And in some sense, Netanyahu's legal trouble has provided them an opportunity to try and challenge the court. I want to turn in the time that we have left to maybe a very tricky topic. Also, in your book, the question of apartheid. And as I mentioned in my introduction, this is not a new question that's been...not a new allegation that's been leveled against Israel. It's been leveled for many years by Palestinians and some of their supporters. But in recent months, B'Tselem -- an Israeli human rights organization, a prominent organization -- has itself made this allegation. Has itself come out and called Israel essentially an apartheid regime, not just the Israeli military rule in the West Bank, but Israel itself. How do you see this claim of apartheid? I mean, what's your response to this?

Ariely: I think that my attempt to view if the Israeli regime, as I mentioned at the beginning, is to use perspective that I, as a political scientist, adopt to understand reality. And when we classify regime, when we discuss regime, we don't just use analog. We don't just say this regime is like that -- Israeli is like an apartheid, Israel is like India, Israel is like the U.S., Israel is like the French. Because such comparisons are not the way we try to analyze the reality when we are doing a political science. So in a sense, I'm not engaged with the debate because B'Tselem, it's one NGO who claim Israeli is apartheid, and someone else who said, okay, but B'Tselem claimed Israel is apartheid, but Freedom House, which is an NGO who classifies regime for a living, don't claim that Israel is an apartheid. Classify Israel as an illiberal democracy, or something close to illiberal democracy. So why we can take B'Tselem NGO argument as superior on another NGO argument. And so such debate, it's not, not my interest. And I think that I would say that even more, the claim that Israel is apartheid is a very, very strong argument in the case of the political implications of the situation in Israel, that's in many ways, it's very hard to justify what's going on in the occupied territories...So I'm not saying...I'm not arguing anywhere, that's the way such claims are wrong. I'm not in any debate with B'Tselem. My motivation is to expand reality, and if I'm claiming, or if someone is claiming that Israel is apartheid, so the way we can use it to explain issues is very limited. For example, again, we have elections next week, and there is a very strong competition for the Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship - electors. There is a very, very strong competition of them. If I'm claiming that Israel is an apartheid regime, so my ability to explain how could it be that there is such a strong competition, a vote of the Palestinian citizens will be very limited. Because if it is an apartheid regime, so maybe they don't have free will, they cooperate with the regime who marginalize them. So but why do they do that? Why don't they use other means in order to challenge the Israeli regime? And if my motivation is not to name Israel, but to understand why in front of all the Israeli policies, in front of all the ongoing inequality, why the very strong political participation among Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, So the concept of apartheid will be very limited in his ability to help me explain it. So this is why I will not use the concept of apartheid. And I also don't use the concept of democracy because claiming that, yeah, because it is democracy is also very limited, because it ignores the zones that Israel controls and the Palestinian people who don't have a citizenship who don't take part in the political process. And I have to understand this as well because this is part of the regime.

Waxman: Absolutely. I think that's very important that these these labels, these terms, may be useful in political and public debate. But when it comes to serving as an analytical tool, or to actually explain what's happening, they can often obscure more than they illuminate. And that we really need to have a much more fine-tuned in nuanced approach. And I think, you know, in your book -- and in this interview --  you really express very clearly what that would look like and how to take a much more nuanced approach to these very contentious topics. I want to thank you for that and for sharing your knowledge and expertise with our audience. And I encourage everyone to find the book -- it's just come out. So congratulations. The title again is Israel's Regime Untangled: Between Democracy and Apartheid. You've been listening to an episode of Israel in Depth, produced by the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Thank you for listening.