Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

The Local Dimension in Israeli Government and Politics

Local Government in Israel

Daniel J. Elazar

Israel is well-known as a state in which political power is heavily concentrated in its central institutions, both government and party. The small size of the country, its development as a result of ideologically motivated effort, and the political tradition it has inherited from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources have all coalesced to make this so. At the same time, it is a mistake to think of Israeli government as "centralized" in the usual sense of the word. Power is divided among several centers within the Israeli polity but the centers are organized on cultural-ideological rather than along territorial lines. This means that local government in Israel, which is necessarily territorially based, operates at a handicap. It is often viewed as the weakest link in the state's political system. From a power perspective, local governments are indeed subordinate to governmental and party centers, not to speak of the religious and ethnic communities, in many ways. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to underestimate either the role or influence of local government in the state.

Local government plays an important role in Israeli society, particularly in connection with the following four tasks:

  1. the provision and administration of governmental services;

  2. the recruitment and advancement of political leadership;

  3. the fostering of channels of political communication between the governors and the governed; and

  4. the maintenance of necessary or desired diversity within a small country where there are heavy pressures toward homogeneity.

All four of these tasks are of great importance in the integration of what is still a very new society of immigrants or the children of immigrants. The role played by local government in meeting the challenges they pose makes it a far more vital factor on the Israeli scene that it is often given credit for.1

Historical Manifestations of Territorial Democracy

If ideological democracy places a premium on doctrinal faithfulness (or what passes for it) in the attainment of true citizenship and political influence, territorial democracy places a premium for their attainment on simply living some place by right. In one sense, the entire Zionist endeavor is a reflection of the Jewish people's movement from ideological to territorial democracy. Zionism is a recognition that every people needs a territory of its own to survive in the contemporary world. At the same time, as we have seen, the initial Zionist efforts were based upon the notion that the chosen territory would be a minor factor in determining Jewish public policy, far less important than the various ideologically based visions of the new society in the making. Nevertheless, even these ideological movements found it necessary to develop territorially-based means of expression in order to develop bases of operations from which to influence the whole society. The two best examples of this are the kibbutz and the religious neighborhood. Both reflect that face of territorial democracy which allows people with strong common beliefs to settle together and, through the governance of the territory upon which they are settled, to assure that their beliefs will be sufficiently dominant locally to make it possible to protect a common way of life.

Kibbutzim and religious neighborhoods not only reflect this face of territorial democracy by their very existence but go beyond that. The kibbutzim are divided among several movements, each of which has its own particular vision to protect. Similarly, religious neighborhoods tend to fall into sectarian patterns, although more of a mixture may be tolerated. For both, there has been tacit recognition by the state and society of the legitimacy of their utilization of the first face of territorial democracy and they are allowed much greater leeway than other territorial units in protecting their way of life. For example, kibbutzim maintain their own schools which are nominally part of the state education system but are left fairly well to their own devices. Residents of religious neighborhoods not only maintain their own schools in one way or another but are allowed to close off their streets to vehicular traffic on the Sabbath and holidays so as to preserve their particular religious way of life, even though there are no laws to that effect.

Territorial democracy has two faces. It can be used to secure political power or influence for specific communities which occupy specific territories or it can be used in a very neutral way to secure political power or influence for any groups which happen to be resident in a particular area at a particular time. What is common to both is the role of the territorial unit as the basis for organizing power.

Whatever face is manifested, territorial democracy is not simply the same as territoriality or the areal organization of power. Both territoriality and the areal organization of power are obviously universal. In traditional or premodern political systems they are often associated with the preservation of a pre-democratic status quo whereby communities claiming to be organic in origin and character (Gemeindschaften) are given (or at least demand) an opportunity to exercise political power to preserve their internal character within the context of the modern state.

Territorial democracy is the form of the areal division of power that is particularly associated with popular government, instituted as a means to strengthen democratic government rather than restrict it, by providing fixed bases within which public decisions can be democratically made on an appropriate scale. It may be that it is a form particularly associated with new societies since the territorial units in a new society of necessity reflect the same general goals as the society as a whole. At most, they seek to provide expression for specific facets of those goals. Thus both the towns of Puritan Massachusetts and the agricultural settlements of pre-state Israel saw themselves as communal repositories and territorial manifestations of the highest goals of the new society in the making.2

Both faces of territorial democracy can be found in Israel. Indeed, though they were long submerged within the framework of ideological democracy which continues to hold virtually undisputed sway at the state level, their origins lie in the origins of the modern Yishuv itself. Today, the thrust of territorial democracy has put local government in the vanguard of political development in the country.

The Local Roots of Modern Israel

Territorially-based polities of the first kind began to develop as a matter of course as the pioneers settled in and staked claims to "turfs" of their own. The moshavot, kibbutzim and moshavim came to conceive of themselves as virtually autonomous communities in the pre-state days. Their "natural" territorialism remained within and was substantially compatible with the existing system of ideological democracy as long as the territories were populated exclusively by people with professed ideological commitments who viewed the world in the appropriate ideological categories and were satisfied to function within the overall ideological structure of the society, i.e. as members of movement and party federations.

In the late 1870s and 1880s the very first colonies, beginning with Motza and Petah Tikvah, were organized by pioneers who covenanted together to create territorial units which were to be as autonomous as possible under Turkish rule, protected in their autonomy to no small extent by the Sephardic rabbinical authorities responsible for governing the Jewish millet.3 After the turn of the century, the development of collective and cooperative settlements extended the principle of territorial democracy to another sector of the rural pioneering environment. In this perspective, Degania, the first kvutza, was simply another form of Jewish covenant community.4 Since it was at this point that ideological rigor began to develop on the Israeli scene, they perforce, synthesized their drive for territoriality with the incipient ideological democracy that was developing.

Israel's cities, the embodiment of the second face of territorial democracy, began their development even before the first agricultural settlements. The first of them, the new city of Jerusalem, begun in the 1860s, was founded as a synthesis of the two faces, consisting as it did of neighborhoods created as virtually autonomous communities within the city by like-minded householders contracting together to found new settlements within an urban context. The Bokharan Quarter and Meah Shearim are two of the best-known examples of this arrangement but, in fact, until the British conquest of the city, all new neighborhoods were founded as separate associations, some as mere arrangements of convenience while others were openly dedicated to preserving a very specific and concrete way of life, much as the collective settlements were.5

The power of the Zionist back-to-the-land movement was such that urban pioneering was ignored or denigrated until well into the first generation of statehood. At the same time, a majority of the Jews who came to settle in the land of Israel settled in cities. At its height in the 1930s, the agricultural sector did not quite reach a third of the total Jewish population in the country. Thus urban pioneering remained an important factor in the Zionist enterprise, whether recognized as such or not. It was the first pioneering sector back during the first founding, it continued to be important in the intervening years, and became the dominant pioneering sector once again after the state was declared.

The conflict between the back-to-the-land movement and the realities of urbanization led to another tension within Israeli society regarding the character of urbanization. To the extent that attention was paid to city-building at all, it was the intention of the Zionist founders to introduce rural elements into the cityscape, to build garden cities or suburbs. At the same time, the models of city-building which were known to them were almost entirely European, whether of Eastern or Western Europe, and in both cases they represented the very antithesis of this melding of rural and urban elements. This, too, is a tension which has not been resolved.6

The first city consciously founded as an urban settlement without an ideological base other than the general ideology of Zionism was Tel Aviv, significantly enough founded in the same year (1909) as Degania. From the first, Tel Aviv represented territorial democracy in its most neutral sense. Whoever settled within the city limits was entitled to the rights of local citizenship and could participate in political life to the extent and in the way he or she desired (within the context and opportunities offered by the political system in general) without having to subscribe to any particular ideological or religious doctrine or formula. One result was that for years Tel Aviv went counter to the nationwide trend towards socialism to become a stronghold of the General Zionists though, as the city grew larger, its population became more mixed and diversified and the city lost even the modest ideological tinge it once had.7

Tel Aviv became at one and the same time the paradigm and the caricature of the Israeli city as a neutral, democratic, territorial political unit. In the 1920s and 1930s and then at an accelerating rate after 1948, other cities followed its lead. As the country's Jewish population expanded, many of the original moshavot, the agricultural colonies founded in pre-ideological days, were transformed into just such neutral territorial units as they became citified. After 1948, these were supplemented by over twenty new towns, founded to absorb the new immigrants. Taken together, these cities became the major vessels for the assimilation of the waves of mass immigration which came into the country beginning in the 1930s. Today they contain two-thirds of the country's total population.8

Local self-government was the first vehicle for asserting the national goals of the Zionist movement. The first Zionist colonies were created as self-governing covenant communities not dissimilar in the fundaments of their political organization from the early Puritan settlements of New England. Somewhat later, the first local governments in their present forms were organized by the Jewish pioneers under the laws of the British Mandate as the precursor of the state. They were designed to give the pioneers as much autonomy as possible while the country was still under British rule.

Historical exigencies led to the development of contemporary Israel out of local roots. Given the facts of imperial control, first under the Ottomans and then under the British, the Jews could only expand their presence on a local basis, by many local efforts or national efforts expressed locally. Both rural and urban settlement patterns reflected this reality. In both, small groups of settlers came together and organized themselves locally to undertake pioneering tasks. The local role was further stimulated by the fact that the Ottoman authorities who governed the land until 1917 saw their function as essentially custodial and oriented to maintaining minimum security; all else was left to the religio-ethnic communities to develop as they saw fit. The British authorities who came after the Turks (between 1917 and 1948) did not depart from this pattern except to make it more honest and efficient. It was left to the individual religio-ethnic communities within the country to determine the kind of public infrastructure they wanted for themselves. For the ruling powers, this was a natural and highly functional way to deal with the problem of differing ethnic groups with widely differing styles of internal organization and highly divergent expectations from the public sector.

Thus the first local governments were fostered as alternatives to foreign government and were treated by the organized Jewish community in Palestine as important elements in the drive for a Jewish state. Jewish municipalities such as Tel Aviv, local councils such as Petah Tikva, regional councils (which were federations of Jewish agricultural settlements) such as Emek HaYarden (Jordan Valley) and HaGalil HaElyon (Upper Galilee), as well as the governing committees of the kibbutzim and moshavim were all encouraged by the Zionist authorities as a means of advancing the cause of Jewish self-government. In those pre-statehood days, the Jewish local governments took on many of the responsibilities that were later to become the province of the state and provided a wide range of services which they initiated and organized in the first place. In this, they were specifically encouraged by the Mandatory government which itself maintained only the minimum of governmental services for political reasons, allowing the Jews and Arabs of what was then Palestine to determine the level of services to be provided in their own sectors.

The Arabs resisted all efforts by the British to establish local government institutions in their communities on the grounds that they would interfere with the traditional patterns of local rule, where the leading family or families maintained nearly total control over their fellow villagers. This policy meant that the Arab villages remained almost unchanged until the establishment of the State of Israel. The Israeli authorities encouraged them to acquire municipal status and the services and facilities that went with such status. As a result, the Arab villages have been undergoing modernization with regard to basic municipal functions for no more than a generation.

The Jewish sector, on the other hand, wished to rapidly develop a modern, Western-style society, with all that entailed. Indeed, because of their socialist bent, the Jewish pioneers wished to provide even more services than many individualistic societies in the West. Since neither Turkish nor British mandatory authorities were interested in meeting their needs and since the Jews were not interested in having others do for them what they believed they should do for themselves, the Zionist institutions undertook the task of providing those services. Even within the framework of the federation of parties, to no small extent the execution of this task fell upon the Jewish-sponsored local authorities which served most of the Jewish population.

Local governments also served the cause of maintaining diversity within the framework of the Zionist movement. The General Zionists and other right and center parties that were excluded from positions of power in the Histadrut-dominated, countrywide organs of the Jewish "state within a state" were able to establish power bases of their own in a number of the Jewish municipalities, which gave them a share and a stake in the upbuilding of the land. Moreover, many of the future leaders of the state took their first steps on the road to political careers in the local polities, urban or rural, especially in the kibbutzim. Finally, the very nature of the Yishuv meant that the Jewish local governments would be central factors in the enhancement of political communication among the members of the new society. The history of local government in pre-state Israel is yet to be written, but when it is, there is no doubt that the record will show that it played an important role as a training ground for the state in the making.9

Even local government law in the country was generally enacted by the British Mandatory regime after the fact, that is to say, after Jewish settlers had created local institutions which then had to be somehow formalized. The regional councils, a basic element in all rural local government in Israel, are good examples of this. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, in those areas where there were a sufficient number of Jewish colonies to create contiguous bands of Jewish settlement, the territorial democracy of the pioneers took on an additional form. The leaders of the various kibbutzim and moshavim in the Jordan Valley, the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley and the Huleh Valley -- the three areas with both the requisite concentration of settlements and the perceived need for cooperative action -- found it useful and necessary to join together and cooperate with one another for the provision of common regional services. Other clusters -- two on the coastal plain, two in the Jordan Valley, and two in the Jezreel Valley -- began to do so in the 1930s, creating councils on a federative basis, i.e., one representative from each settlement, and possessing only such powers as were delegated to him by the constituent settlements, which retained most powers for themselves. At first they had no legal status, but in 1941 the Mandatory government took note of those councils and promulgated a law providing for their recognition as formal local government bodies and for the establishment of others. The Yishuv utilized these regional federations of settlements to create small Jewish republics (their terminology) as a form of autonomous space within the framework of the Mandate, something which could only be done from a territorial base.10

The regional council idea spread, particularly after 1948, to become one of Israel's major contributions to the theory and practice of local government. Appropriately, regional federations combined the principles of territorial and ideological democracy to unite settlements within the same or similar political movements.

The regional councils, particularly the older ones among them, have retained a far greater degree of local autonomy than any other governments in Israel, partly because a number of them predate the establishment of the state and had the experience of being virtually autonomous at a time when the legitimacy of the colonial government was challenged by the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine and partly because of the special place their component units (especially the kibbutzim, but agricultural settlements in general) occupy in Israeli society. As the embodiments of the Israeli mystique they have a vital place in Israeli society which tends to reinforce their position as self-governing communities.

Simultaneously, cities like Tel Aviv created statelike service systems for their residents under the permissive British rule and with the blessings of the Vaad HaLeumi (Jewish National Committee). Thus even the state services of the new society had local roots to no small degree and were pyramided into countrywide programs through various kinds of contractual and federal arrangements established by the parties.

The Founding of Local Government

Formally, modern local government was first introduced in Eretz Israel in the latter days of the Ottoman Empire with the enactment of the Vilayet Law of 1864 which provided for the establishment of nahiyas (rural districts) throughout the country. Nahiyas were gradually introduced between then and World War I. These nahiyas were under the control of mudirs. Under the law each was to have a local council but few such councils were actually established. Instead, mukhtars were installed to replace the sheikhs who headed the local hamulas. Under the law, two mukhtars were to have been elected in each village along with a council of village elders (ikhtiyariyya) but in fact most mukhtars were appointed, usually after consultation with the local notables. The mukhtar was responsible for assessing and levying taxes among the villagers, settling local disputes, and acting as an intermediary in the relationship between the provincial administration and the village.

Initially, the Jewish moshavot were outside of this system. Indeed, they resisted attempts by the provincial administration to control them. They were successful in this regard until 1904, at which time the Ottoman provincial authorities recognized the four largest moshavot as villages, recognizing their internal governance structures and accepting those elected by the village councils as the mukhtars. By 1914 all of the moshavot had acquired a similar status.

In the interim, the moshavot themselves organized their own self-governing institutions based upon patterns of Jewish communal self-government derived from Eastern Europe and held together by local consensus rather than external legal power. The general meeting (assefah klalit) was the ultimate authority in each moshava. It met several times a year. It elected an executive (hanhalah) annually or biannually, and in some of the larger moshavot, a council (moetzah) as well, to which the executive was responsible. Each executive had a chairman (yoshev rosh) and other officers elected from among its members. In some of the moshavot all adult members were granted equal political rights from the start. In others, there were struggles between the property owners and the unpropertied, principally the workers, over the issue of political rights, but by the end of Ottoman rule equal suffrage on a universal basis had triumphed in all of them.

Municipal government was introduced at approximately the same time as rural local government and was also a product of the Ottoman reform (tanzimat). Jerusalem was made a municipality by special imperial decree (firman) in 1863. It remained the only formally organized municipality until the enactment of the Provincial Municipalities Law in 1877 under which 22 towns and larger villages were granted municipal status in the 1880s and 1890s.

Under the law they had an impressive list of powers and responsibilities but, in fact, had very little room to maneuver under the provincial authorities. Municipal budgets were very small and the municipalities had almost no civil service. Under the law, the municipal councils (majlis umumi) of 6-12 members were to be elected by local taxpayers who were Ottoman subjects. In fact, genuine elections rarely took place. The general rule was that the local notables would agree upon a slate of council members. In Jerusalem, the Jewish and Christian as well as the Muslim communities were represented on the council, although the Muslims had disproportionate representation. Mayors were appointed by the government and, of course, were always Muslims.

At the outset of the British Mandate, there were 22 municipalities in western Palestine: 16 Arab and 6 mixed Arab-Jewish (Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, Safed, and Hebron). Tel Aviv was still regarded as a suburb of Jaffa although, in fact, it was administered by a separate autonomous Jewish council. The British more or less accepted the Ottoman system until they could introduce a municipal framework of their own. In the interim, new municipalities were created by the Mandatory government through orders-in-council. The first independent step by the Mandatory government was the promulgation of a town planning ordinance in 1921, a reflection of the British interest in the aesthetics of the Holy Land. A local council ordinance promulgated in the same year established the basis for rural local government in the country for 20 years, after which it became more an expression of the government of small cities. A general municipal franchise ordinance was promulgated by the Mandatory government in 1926. It extended municipal voting rights to resident male tenants even if they held no property provided that they paid at least one Palestine pound in municipal rates annually.

It was not until 1934 that a comprehensive Municipal Corporations Ordinance was promulgated. It empowered the high commissioner to establish new municipalities or change the boundaries of existing ones on the recommendation of a public committee of inquiry, a system which continued after the establishment of the state, with the Minister of Interior inheriting the powers of the high commissioner. The Ordinance detailed the method of elections, the duties and powers of council members and the municipality, revenue sources, procedures for approving the municipal budget, methods of financial control, and regulations for filling the major administrative positions of town clerk, treasurer, and medical officer. The law also established procedures for council and committee meetings and rules for establishing committees.

Local councils were empowered to enact bylaws but only on those subjects listed in the ordinance, and subject to the high commissioner's approval. The district commissioners were given oversight and budgetary approval powers, while the high commissioner retained the right established in Ottoman days to nominate the mayors and deputy mayors. This Ordinance was carried over after 1948 and many of its provisions still apply although they continue to be modified.

The 1934 Ordinance also confirmed Tel Aviv's municipal status, broadening the local franchise to include men and women, citizens and foreign nationals who paid at least half a pound a year in municipal rates. The Tel Aviv pattern became the model for other Jewish councils established subsequently. The Ordinance also modestly changed the distribution of powers in Jerusalem. While the city had a Jewish majority for many years and a Jewish plurality since 1860, Jews had only been entitled to 4 out of the 12 seats on the city council. After 1934, the distribution provided for 6 Jewish council members, 4 Muslims, and 2 Christians, but the high commissioner always appointed a Muslim mayor with Jewish and Christian deputies.

The 1921 Town Planning Ordinance was basically designed to safeguard the aesthetic dimensions of the country during a period of development. It was replaced in 1936 by a more modern ordinance which provided for the establishment of local town planning committees identical with the local councils and with the mayor as chairman, and district town planning commissions headed by the district commissioner in which the Mandatory government departments were represented. The latter oversaw the former and was in turn subject to general directives from the Mandatory government planning division.

The 1921 Local Council Ordinance became the formal basis for Jewish self-government under the Mandate, although the Jewish communities went beyond it in the establishment of powerful institutions of their own. Petah Tikvah, the oldest of the moshavot, was the first Jewish settlement to acquire local council status in 1921. The next year Rishon le-Zion and Rehovot acquired similar status; Tel Aviv became a local council in 1923, and Ramat Gan and Afula in 1926. After that it was not until 1935, when Hadera acquired that status, that it spread to other Jewish settlements. Bat Yam, Ra'anana, and Kfar Saba followed in 1936; Bnei Brak and Herzliya in 1937.

In 1941 a new ordinance was promulgated, replacing the earlier one. It expanded the powers of the local councils, creating the anomaly that still exists that in some fields they have more powers than municipalities and, indeed, were given the power to act for the public benefit on any matter so long as it did not come in conflict with other legislation. The 1941 act provided for the establishment of regional councils as well, based on the patterns of governance developed for existing federations of Jewish settlements, which formalized the arrangements which had already been developed in the Jewish sector.

In 1945 the Local Authorities (Business Tax) Ordinance was promulgated which allowed local authorities to enact bylaws to tax businesses operating within their boundaries, subject to approval by the high commissioner. This completed the bundle of local legislation under the Mandate.

The Arab village residents regarded these ordinances as an interference with their traditional way of life and opposed their implementation. In the first five years, 21 Arab local councils were established, plus Sarona as a Christian council. Most of the Arab villages given local council status successfully fought against the transformation of their traditional organization. Instead, the Arabs secured a village administration ordinance promulgated in 1944 which provided for a more modest change in the traditional government of the villages. Twenty-four villages reorganized under that law between 1944 and 1948, but even in those cases the new structure tended to exist only on paper while the old ways were preserved. By the end of the Mandate in 1948 there were only 11 Arab local councils, while the number of Jewish local councils had increased to 26, in addition to four regional councils (Emek Hefer, Kishon, Nahalal, and Tel Hai).

Local Government in the New State

With the establishment of the state in 1948, local government left the center of the political stage. Not unexpectedly, the new state began to assume responsibility for many public functions which had rested in local governmental hands for lack of central institutions. Political leadership gravitated toward the offices of the new state, leaving only those members of the opposition parties for whom the limited responsibilities of service in the Knesset were not sufficient and those kibbutzniks who wished to stay home, to seek local office. In the process of sorting out state and local functions, the party organizations and the Histadrut interposed themselves between the fledgling state and the local governments, further weakening the autonomy of the local leadership.

At the same time, the mass immigration to Israel in the years 1948-1953 shifted the patterns of settlement in the country in such a way that the kibbutzim and veteran moshavim, the local communities possessing the best access to the state and the most power to maintain their local autonomy, declined in importance relative to other local communities. On the other hand, the development towns and the immigrant settlements, potentially the least powerful local communities, became significant elements in the constellation of local governments. While new kibbutzim were established in this period, the kibbutz as such failed to attract many of the new immigrants.11

The reduction in the power of local government was not necessarily the result of calculated policy but, rather, the result of a natural transfer of powers that could only have that effect. Indeed, the new state took it upon itself to foster local government institutions from the first. Reversing the pattern established in Mandatory days, the state authorities themselves moved to establish new local authorities. The number of Jewish settlements enjoying municipal status rose from 36 in 1948 to 107 by 1968. The number of regional councils rose from 4 in 1948 to to 53 in 1985. Moreover, new rural settlements were all encouraged to develop local committees of their own for their internal self-government. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the Arab and Druze villages were also encouraged to establish modern municipal governments of their own and did so in substantial numbers, thereby opening the door to political participation for thousands of non-Jews who had previously been caught in the embrace of a traditional society that confined political power to a tiny elite. In addition to the establishment of new local governments, existing local governments were upgraded and their structures and functions more or less regularized according to standard statewide patterns.12

The same standardization that was brought to governmental activities was extended to politics as well. Regularization brought with it the patterns of voting on the local plane that were becoming fixed statewide. The opposition parties lost control of most of the local governments which had been in their hands in the prestate period and were replaced by new coalitions dominated by Mapai, the Israel Labor party that was dominant in the country as a whole. If the establishment of the state strengthened the hands of central government institutions, the mass immigration strengthened the hands of the political party organizations. Whereas in the small Yishuv before statehood the party members could play significant roles in party decision-making, as the population grew and the elements which came in were for the most part politically unsophisticated, the professional party leaders took over direction of party affairs, relying upon the new voting masses who turned out for them at the polls but who were not prepared to participate actively in party government. This had the effect of increasing the role of the central organs of the political parties, enabling them to become the mediating elements between state and local governing bodies with their respective versions of coalition politics.

Local government reached its lowest point in the political system in the mid-1950s. At that point, the older local governments had lost many of their original functions and had been absorbed in the statewide party system along lines that harmonized with the patterns of rule established in Jerusalem. The most powerful local governments, those of the kibbutzim, and secondarily the older moshavim, were attracting a proportionately smaller share of the new immigrants and losing their importance in the local government constellation as a result. The new immigrant settlements that had been established after statehood were still too raw and immature to be self-governing. Even where they were given municipal status, their government offices were occupied or dominated by outsiders sent in by their respective political parties to manage local affairs until such time as "proper" (however defined) local leadership should emerge.13

In the late 1950s, the tide began to turn as local governments began to find their place in the framework of a state in which power was divided on other than territorial bases, first and foremost, but which also wished to encourage local governmental activity across most if not all of the four tasks or roles listed at the beginning of this chapter. The process of adjustment which began at that time has not yet been completed.

In the case of government services, after the period of mass transfer of functions to the state, the country entered a period in which shared or cooperative activity began to be stressed. With regard to functions defined as state services, the state took primary responsibility for program initiation, policy-making, and finance, while program administration -- the actual delivery of services -- was increasingly transferred to local government. In cases where the division was not so clear-cut, responsibility for the delivery of services was somehow divided between the state and the localities. This became true over a wide range of functions, from welfare to education to civil defense to sewage disposal.

The nature of these sharing arrangements should be made clear. They did not involve a sharing among equal partners but rather a sharing between superior and subordinate. But sharing did become the norm, which meant that, at the very least, the local governments were forced to develop cadres of civil servants with sufficient administrative skills to provide the services that the state promised all its citizens. This opened the door to the recruitment and development of a new class of participants in a governmental process which out of necessity has drawn people from all segments of Israeli society.14

Moreover, unlike local government in countries with very heterogeneous populations like the United States, local governments in Israel undertake a range of social and cultural functions which extend beyond the ordinary police functions of local government. These range from the provision of religious services to the management of orchestras and drama groups, from the maintenance of day care centers to the awarding of literary prizes. No small share of the importance of local governments in Israel flows from its role in undertaking these functions as part of their task of fostering the social and cultural integration of the community.15

Forms of Local Government

Urban government in Israel legally takes two forms, cities and local councils, with the distinction between them minimal. The largest local communities are legally cities with full municipal powers, but, in the English tradition of ultra vires, they possess only those powers specifically granted to them. In the case of conflict with the state, city powers are interpreted narrowly. Small urban places are formally termed local councils, a status which gives them almost as much power as cities and in a few cases more, but which makes them more dependent on the Ministry of Interior for hiring personnel.16 Both kinds of municipalities are governed by mayors elected directly and by councils elected on the basis of proportional representation. Normally, no party gains a majority in the council and a coalition is formed to govern the city, much as is the case on the state plane. Usually, even parties winning a majority will form coalitions in order to strengthen the hand of the local government or to better distribute local political rewards in consideration of statewide coalitions.17

While cities and local councils are the basic urban municipal units, they can confederate with one another to create larger, special-purpose municipal bodies designed to undertake specific tasks. These bodies, termed confederations of cities, can be established by two or more municipalities and can undertake one or more functions. They range from the Lod-Ramle joint high school district to the federation of cities of the Dan region, which encompasses the better part of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and provides several services which seem to be best handled on a metropolitan-wide basis.18

Israel has also utilized special authorities for certain purposes. Certain of these authorities handle water drainage and sanitation problems which require adaptation to watersheds that do not follow existing municipal boundaries. In addition, there are the local religious councils in the Jewish-dominated localities, local planning committees, and the state-mandated, quasi-independent local agricultural committees established in most former agricultural colonies that have become mixed urban-rural communities.19

The cooperative sector is represented locally by workers' councils which are elected by the vote of all members of the Histadrut within each council's jurisdiction (which, in most cases, more or less conforms to the municipal boundaries). While formally private, many of their activities are of a quasi-governmental character, and they often wield substantial political influence, especially since cities are often dependent upon decisions taken by the cooperative sector at the higher echelons of its bureaucracy, over which they have minimal influence.20

The kibbutzim and moshavim, on the other hand, are elite elements in the cooperative sector. They are organized as cooperative societies and also have municipal status as a local committee (Vaad Mekomi) under state law. They are actually governed by two principle bodies, the general meeting (equivalent to the American town meeting), which elects the local committee on a yearly basis and which meets monthly to consider major issues, and the local executive committee, which meets as frequently as necessary, sometimes daily, to deal with current business. Most of their day-to-day business is carried on through a multitude of committees involving as many members as are capable of participating. Every kibbutz and moshav is also a member of a regional council that provides secondary local government services, in which it is represented by a delegate or delegates chosen by its own general meeting.21

Because of the particular character of rural settlement in Israel where even family farms are concentrated in villages with their own local institutions, the 728 rural settlements with their own local governmental autonomy have an average population of under 800.22 In a self-selected population (which is what these settlements represent), it is possible for these small communities to provide a very high level of services. Even so, it has been increasingly necessary to broaden the scale of services as evidenced by the growing power of the regional councils. For example, all but the smallest settlements choose to maintain their own elementary school, but the provision of an adequate high school requires a somewhat larger population base. Hence, the provision of high schools is increasingly entrusted to regional councils. Yet the regional councils themselves are relatively small, ranging in population from 678 to 20,378, with only four over 10,000.23

There are today a total of 1,409 local authorities functioning in Israel, or approximately one local government per 2,823 inhabitants. Table 1.1 summarizes the types of local authorities functioning in Israel and the number of each type. By any standard, this is a high figure. It is particularly high given the strong formal commitment in Israel to centralized government.

Table 1.1


Type Number
Cities 37
Local councils 125
Regional councils 54
Local committees 825
Federations of cities 32
Religious councils 204
Agricultural committees 26
Planning committees 84
Drainage authorities 22
Total 1,409

Most local authorities serve relatively small populations. Jerusalem, the largest city in the country, has approximately 415,000 residents and is growing primarily as a result of the reunification of the city in 1967. Tel Aviv, once the largest city in the country and still the central metropolis, has a declining population, now less than 330,000, having peaked at approximately 385,000 in the mid-1970s. It is now undergoing the process of dedensification which has become common in central cities over much of the Western world, as the movement to better housing in newer parts of the metropolitan area plus urban renewal with the construction of new housing at lower densities within the city has its impact. Haifa has approximately 227,000 people and is the third largest city. There is a second cluster of five cities with populations between 100,000 and 140,000. The other cities and towns range in size from 200 to 80,000. The average city size is under 18,000. While the country is highly urbanized, nearly half the population lives in villages or small cities of under 40,000 population while approximately 25 percent live in cities of over 200,000.

Neighborhoods have real meaning in most cities. In part, this is associated with the very formation of the cities themselves, whose modern founding was the result not only of associations of pioneers established by compact for that specific purpose, but also of a compounding of different neighborhoods, each created independently by a pioneer association and then linked through a second set of compacts to form the present city. Both large and small cities have clearly identified neighborhoods. In fact, it is fair to say that this pattern can be found in any city of over 10,000 population and in some that are even smaller because of the history of city building in Israel.24

Haifa, where formal neighborhood institutions are strongest and most widespread, reflects this process to the fullest. Neighborhood committees evolved, each with specific if limited responsibilities for the provision of services and for participation in the development of certain common city-wide services. Finally, taking advantage of a provision in the law, the residents of Kiryat Haim, one of the city's neighborhoods, voted to formally establish an elected neighborhood council and to assume the powers to which it was entitled.

Jerusalem was unified by the external decision of the ruling power, but because most of the older neighborhoods represented clearly distinct socio-religious communities, the city has consistently refrained from imposing itself upon them in those fields of particular concern to each. Today the city is trying to extend more formal devices for neighborhood participation to newer neighborhoods. In the early 1980s, there were successful experiments in formally institutionalized neighborhood self-government which operate today in seven neighborhoods, both old and new. As a result, Jerusalem has opted for decentralization of municipal functions throughout the city.

In Tel Aviv the merger of neighborhoods was more thorough and little, if anything, remains of the earlier framework other than names and recollections. In the past few years, however, the city has made some effort to revive consultative bodies in at least those neighborhoods which have preserved the most distinctive personalities.

The phenomenon of neighborhood committees is widespread in Israel. A recent study shows that there were approximately 385 active neighborhood committees throughout the country, characterized by intensive activities in various physical and social areas within their respective neighborhoods.25

Project Renewal has enhanced the already-strong neighborhood orientation of Israel's cities. This massive program of urban redevelopment undertaken by the government of Israel and diaspora Jewry, is based on targeting aid to specific neighborhoods through local steering committees which bear major responsibility for determining what should be done to improve their neighborhoods. These steering committees determine projects, set priorities, and negotiate with state and diaspora counterparts.26

In Israel, as in other parts of the world, there has been periodic pressure to consolidate small local units. Despite the fact that the Minister of Interior has full authority to abolish any local unit or consolidate two or more units, this authority has rarely been used and then only when such a move had sufficient political backing from local elites. In the early days of the state when political elites did not include representatives of the localities in question, more consolidations were effected. Since the early 1960s, however, even the weakest local governments have acquired political bases of their own, and any attempts at consolidation are strongly resisted. As a result, consolidation efforts have essentially ground to a halt, being replaced by efforts to create confederations of cities in order to undertake those functions which the individual communities cannot undertake by themselves.27

The State Commission on Local Government (Sanbar Commission), which completed its work in 1980, rejected the notion of consolidation as a basic tool of local government reform, recommending that it be considered in only one or two cases. After extensive fieldwork, the Commission concluded that the civic virtues of the smaller local authorities compensated for most of the disadvantages of their small size and that, through interlocal arrangements based on federative principles, those disadvantages could be overcome.

To date, the federation of cities device has been generally used to undertake functions of metropolitan concern and has been little used in the more rural parts of the country. This is partly because the confederation of cities idea was developed to serve cities that adjoin one another, that is to say, those in metropolitan regions. The device has not been extended to free-standing cities within a region which may be separated by no more than a few miles but which see themselves and are treated as totally separate entities. Thus, a certain amount of very real intergovernmental collaboration in planning and service delivery has been developed in the Dan region, which consists of some 20 cities whose boundaries are contiguous with one another. Yet in the Galilee, a region of several hundred thousand people with no single city of 40,000 population but with six cities of over 10,000, all within an area of less than 1,000 square miles, there are relatively few intermunicipal arrangements and little local concern with moving in that direction. This is true even though the region as a whole shares common state facilities (e.g., a large hospital in Safed, university extension courses in that city and at Tel Hai near Kiryat Shmona, district offices in Nazareth, rudimentary sewage treatment facilities near Tiberias) and has the potential of becoming a kind of multinodal metropolitan region of the kind that has developed elsewhere in the world.

State-Local Relations in a Government-Permeated Society

The fact that Israel is a government-permeated society strongly affects state-local relations. One of the major consequences of this is that local government officials must spend as much time working with outside authorities to either provide services or fund services as they do in directing their own affairs. Another is that local governments have been quite restricted in their ability to finance municipal activities. Relatively few tax resources are at their disposal, and the local share of total governmental expenditures in Israel has been on the decline for nearly twenty years.

By and large, Israeli local governments manage to maintain their freedom of movement by managing deficits, which have become the functional equivalent of grantsmanship in other polities. While there are great restrictions on local government's taxing powers, there are almost no restrictions on its borrowing powers, providing that any particular local authority can pay the high interest involved. Thus, local authorities borrow heavily from the banks in order to provide services and then turn to the state government to obtain the funds to cover the loans. As long as the services they wish to provide are in line with state policies (and there is almost universal consensus with regard to those services, so that is not generally an issue) and there is some degree of unanimity within the local ruling coalition with regard to what is being done, the state will provide the requested funds. Nevertheless, this does mean that the local authorities must spend a very large share of their time in negotiations with their state counterparts.28

Local leaders are also able to turn, in some matters, to the Jewish Agency and through it (or even directly, in some cases) to foreign donors to gain additional resources, mostly for capital investment, e.g., the construction of a new high school, community center, or a child-care center. Where services are provided directly by the state, local authorities will use their influence to try to negotiate more and better services or to influence those responsible for delivering those services locally, but in this they are notably less successful than they are in mobilizing funds for their own programs, partly because the Israeli political culture encourages every officeholder to act as independently as possible.29

Sharpening the Trend Toward Territorial Democracy30

At least since 1969, the local elections have been major factors in Israel's transition from ideologically-based politics to politics based on territorial subdivisions. In many respects, that is their most significant aspect. More specifically, the trend toward territorially-based politics rests upon three separate components:

  1. the increasing political integration of the Israeli polity;

  2. the growing localization of political action and, by extension, of political power;

  3. the increasing differentiation of local political systems, as systems with distinctive patterns and orientations of their own to political action.

Israel's cities and local councils became the first frontier of political integration in the country. They provided the first opportunities for non-ideological participation in Israeli political life, which meant, in effect, opening political participation to younger people, political "amateurs," and to the new immigrants from the Afro-Asian countries or their children. As early as 1967, approximately 47 percent of the political leaders and public officials (taken together) in the local arena were drawn from those groups in sharp contrast to the situation then prevailing in the Knesset and the ministries. Moreover, many had become mayors, giving them concomitant political and social advantages.31 A decade later, they were in the vanguard of the Sephardic leadership in the Likud who moved into key positions in the Knesset and the government.

By any of the measures available, it appears that local government, by applying the principles of territorial democracy, is serving as a channel of recruitment of otherwise excluded groups into the political process. Even where attempts were made to send political veterans into new towns to assume positions of responsibility in the early days of their development, these people were soon overwhelmed by the rise of local leaders able to move ahead simply by virtue of their being who they were vis-a-vis their reference groups where they were. Ultimately, the parties had to accommodate them and seek to co-opt them, making necessary concessions in the process. Not the least of these concessions was an almost total ignoring of ideology in the recruitment of new local leadership so that now one finds even members of Mapam who are observant Jews and members of the Labor Party who do not have even the beginnings of a commitment to socialism. In sum, local politics has become far more pragmatic than ideological.

Significantly, split-ticket voting, a phenomenon which increased during the 1960s, continued its upward trend in the elections of the 1970s. This was widely recognized in Israel and hailed throughout the country as a sign of the growing maturity of the electorate. The increase in split-ticket voting should be understood as an indicator of greater political integration. The ability of voters to discriminate between parties and candidates on different governmental planes is a sign of the citizenry's increasing "at homeness" as members of the body politic. Since political integration, particularly in a democratic society, must necessarily involve greater rootedness within the body politic on the part of the citizenry itself, this is an important measure.

An unintegrated citizenry can be brought to the polls by party organizations to vote in overwhelming numbers. This was the case in Israel in the 1950s and early 1960s, as it was in other countries of immigration during parallel periods in their development. It is clear that the link to politics for the average voter in such circumstances exists only through the mediating force of the organization which provides certain services, frequently apolitical in character, to the new immigrants in return for the right to manipulate their votes.32 The shift away from this in Israel, at first confined to the local elections, led in 1977 to a radical shift in voting for the Knesset and the Likud electoral victory.

Beyond the vote itself, the characters of the candidates and of the campaigns reflect this growing political integration. Increasingly, the candidates represent not only local interests and issues, but also a common statewide orientation and style. While local lists have proliferated, they rarely present themselves as "ethnic" lists, even when their internal composition reflects a particular local balance between blocs of country-of-origin subcommunities. The more successful ones present themselves as "good government" lists, designed to appeal to the voters on the basis of their ability to improve local programs and services (usually by taking a non-partisan stance vis-a-vis the national parties). In this way they emphasize what has become a common Israeli phenomenon and deny particularism as such.

The success of local lists in places like Kfar Shmaryahu, Kiryat Tivon and Ramat Hasharon (all typical upper-middle-class suburban communities) could well have been forecast by observers familiar with similar phenomena in similar suburban communities in other western countries. The residents of these communities are oriented toward the separation of local government from the larger political arena, because they perceive local government as a means for providing appropriate services administered efficiently rather than as a mechanism for political reward. The emergence of such suburban communities in Israel over the past decade has been predictably accompanied by the emergence of local non-partisan lists.

The triumph of local lists in cities like Nahariya, Kiryat Bialik and Rishon le-Zion was less predictable but not necessarily surprising. Each is a full-fledged city in its own right with a distinctive character of its own, even though the latter two have been engulfed by suburbanization in recent years. In all three cases, old elites (the children of older settlers) sought to preserve the character of their communities, and turned to local lists as a means of gaining political control. In 1973, for example, the Nahariya list was called, appropriately enough, Ichpat Lanu (We Care) -- a slogan that has been spreading throughout Israel to symbolize a new or revived interest in civic responsibility. In Kiryat Bialik and Rishon le-Zion the lists were called L'maan Kiryat Bialik (For Kiryat Bialik) and L'maan Rishon le-Zion (For Rishon le-Zion); this is a more prosaic name, but one that also attempts to convey a sense of local concern. In the latter case, the incumbent mayor broke away from his party (Gahal-Likud) when the party's national headquarters attempted to dictate to him the other candidates on his list, and won a resounding victory.

Perhaps, least expected, were the triumphs of local lists in a number of development towns. In those cases, personalities who had already established themselves politically were the motivating forces behind the local lists. The campaigns themselves were based on the same "good government" orientation that had become common nationwide. Again, the names of the lists are significant. For example, in Kiryat Ono, the list was called Hakiryah Shelanu (Our City); in Kiryat Shmona, Hatnua Lizechuyot Haezrach (Movement for Civil Rights); and in Sederot, L'maan Sederot (For Sederot).

The extent of these localistic tendencies is even greater than the statistics reveal. In a number of local authorities, what were actually local lists won under the banner of the national parties. The local appeal of such lists is often revealed by the difference between the vote they received and the local vote for the Knesset. Where the local branches of the national parties adapted to the new style of politics, they were successful even in defeating local lists.

The trend toward personalization of local elections has continued unabated since 1969. It intensified in 1978 after the introduction of the direct election of mayors apart from their party lists. Across the country, outstanding mayoral candidates garner votes far in excess of those cast for their tickets. They have been able to carry lists of virtual unknowns into office on their coattails, while lists not headed by attractive personalities (however defined) have suffered. In many respects, personal elections for mayor came to Israel, de facto, in the 1960s and the formal change in the law merely ratified what had already become the norm.

The Growing Localization of Political Action

The rise of personalities as a factor in local elections is also a reflection of the growing localization of politics in Israel. By the 1973 elections, local party branches were already acting in an increasingly independent fashion. At their most extreme, they rejected all efforts by the party centers to determine who should appear on their local lists and what kind of campaign should be conducted, a posture that would have failed in earlier contests.

In fact, at least until the 1983 elections, there was a steady decline in attempts by party centers to interfere in local ticket-making or campaigning. The party leaders apparently calculated that it did not pay to intervene in the case of the smaller localities; in the larger ones, they no longer had as much power to do so. Thus, in most cases, local branches could make their wishes felt on local matters without resorting to extreme measures. In those few cases where party leaders did actively try, they were sharply challenged and lost.

After the elections, local branches have insisted on the right to undertake their own coalition negotiations, rather than allowing themselves to be pawns in statewide deals by the central party leadership, as had generally been the case in the past. This has led to a number of conflicts which became quite public, but these conflicts have almost always been resolved in favor of local autonomy. On the other hand, there are many cases where local party branches may not have undertaken initiatives, not because they were told not to do so, but because they expected the party centers to be opposed and were unwilling to go against central authority.

In the 1983 municipal elections, there was an atavistic trend toward national party intervention in several localities. In every case, strong local mayoral candidates succeeded in repelling these efforts, although in some cases, the struggle cost them and their parties the elections.

Increasing Local Differentiation

The wide variety of electoral and political responses in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is a very real indicator of the growing localization of Israeli politics. The usual statistical measures of socio-economic and demographic variables tend to portray the region as being substantially homogeneous. Most of the governmental reforms that have been proposed for the region have been based on assumptions derived from that portrayal. In fact, however, the region has relatively few suburbs in the currently accepted sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the municipalities serve settlements founded independently, even though they may have subsequently become engulfed by suburbanization. Even the commuting patterns in the area are not simply to Tel Aviv from peripheral dormitory settlements, but are matrix-like -- cutting across the metropolitan region in a variety of directions. This reflects the fact that the larger cities in the region are independent magnets in their own right. As a matter of fact, while Tel Aviv is the commercial and cultural center of the region and the country as a whole, it shares political and economic power with Jerusalem and Haifa in a manner more characteristic of large federal systems than of small unitary states.

Within the Tel Aviv region, Ramat Gan, Givatayim, and Bnei Brak -- three adjoining cities -- serve as major commercial and cultural foci with distinctive local characteristics. The first is a bourgeois city par excellance and an alternative commercial center to Tel Aviv. The second is a worker's town and the third is the seat of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel, rivaled only by Jerusalem. Industry is scattered throughout the region; the largest single employer, Israel Aircraft Industries, is located at the region's eastern periphery near Ben Gurion Airport, and draws employees from the eastern ring of towns in an arc from north to south. Each municipality has developed a politics of its own to go with its particular location, economic base and demographic composition. The local election contests, on the other hand, demonstrate the great diversity within the region; it is now being expressed more clearly and forcefully through the politics of the local authorities than at any time since the establishment of the state.

What is true of the Tel Aviv region is true of the country as a whole. Hence, even more striking than the localization of local politics in Israel is the increasing differentiation in the character (political and otherwise) of the various cities, towns and regions within the country. The two phenomena are, of course, closely linked. Indeed, a strong case can be made that it is the growth of local differentiation that has encouraged localization. Moreover, local differentiation has developed hand in hand with increased statewide political integration.

This is not the place to examine this apparently paradoxical phenomenon, but the paradox is more apparent than real. Evidence accumulated in recent years suggests that under the conditions that sustain pluralist democracy in its various forms, increasing political integration can stimulate internal differentiation on new planes. The overwhelming majority of Israel's cities, towns, and villages emerged within the same two-generation period as did the state, pioneered by the same elements under the same conditions. Despite the potential for sameness that this situation offered, they have acquired quite distinct characteristics in the course of becoming rooted communities, even as the state is becoming better integrated politically.

In part, this is a reflection of the fact that different ideological, country-of-origin and occupational groups were settled in different localities. These differences may be the result of:

  1. ideological choices on the part of the original settlers themselves (particularly in the case of settlements founded before the state);

  2. the settlement of immigrant groups on the basis of when they arrived in the country (particularly in the case of those founded in the state's early years); or

  3. conscious planning on the part of the authorities (particularly in more recent years), or some combination of the three. This process alone would have produced a certain amount of differentiation, and it has.

Even where the same kinds of people were settled in different places, the order of their arrival created its own patterns of differentiation. Moreover, the kinds of occupations in which the first arrivals were able to engage established status systems which are, to some extent at least, specifically local in character. In general, economic circumstances have contributed to local differentiation. When combined with location, these circumstances have played a major role in determining whether a community would be relatively stable in its population, or one with a great deal of population turnover. Migration, itself, is another factor promoting differentiation. Either initially or subsequent to their initial settlement, most individuals and families have been free to make their own choices insofar as they have the means to do so; thus, population shifts have taken place to shape the character of local communities.

Finally, history -- even the brief history of communities in Israel -- brings about its own differentiation. Precedents are established; certain people acquire position and power and put their own stamp on local affairs; traditions emerge; and a local pattern of doing business is forged. Even institutions mandated centrally for every settlement develop differentially on the basis of local circumstances, thus solidifying certain patterns and preventing the development of others. The result is the emergence of separate "personalities" for each community. These differential characteristics, in turn, influence future developments, attracting or repelling both people from the outside and those born locally.

For many years, the physical appearance of development towns was one of bland sameness, differentiated only by the fact that in different years the central authorities used different architectural and town planning styles. Recently, however, these towns have acquired increasingly differentiated characteristics. Netivot, Ofakim and Sederot are three development towns founded at approximately the same time along the road between Ashkelon and Beersheba, a few kilometers from one another. In Netivot, a progressive group attained power in 1973 through control of the local NRP (National Religious Party) branch, in a manner particularly appropriate to a town whose population is overwhelmingly religious. They held on for a decade and brought considerable new development to their town until ruptured by a split in the NRP. In Sederot, which voted overwhelmingly for the Labor Alignment in Knesset and local elections until 1973, the same kind of local progressive movement achieved power through an independent local list but was unable to move the town forward to any great degree. Ofakim did not undergo the kind of political change that could make a difference in the quality of life until the introduction of Project Renewal from the outside after 1977. It remains the least politically advanced of the three towns. The differences among the three can be traced to differences in the composition of their respective populations, the economic situation created by local and statewide considerations, and the quality of their leadership. What is significant here is that such real differences have emerged in so short a period of time.

Territorial Democracy: The Minorities

Two more aspects of territorial democracy in Israel need to be considered, both of which are lineal descendents of the old millet system. While that system no longer exists in a formal way in Israel, the government has made some effort to accommodate the legitimate demands of non-Jewish minorities for local autonomy by applying its principles in the local government sphere. Thus most Arabs, Muslim or Christian; Druze, and Circassians have a substantial amount of cultural autonomy maintained through their own local councils which serve to concretize the rights secured them in Israeli basic law and also provide a basis for implementing services provided by the state through the appropriate departments in the Ministries of Religious Affairs and Education and Culture.

In 1948, there was one Arab local council in Israel and only 27 percent of all Arabs were located within municipal governments of any kind. During the years following the attainment of statehood, the Israeli authorities made a conscious and concentrated effort to give Arab and Druze villages municipal status and thereby provide them with the political basis for a substantial amount of local self-determination, particularly in the cultural and religious spheres. By 1968, there were 42 Arab and Druze local councils, one regional council composed exclusively of Druze villages and 18 villages within mixed regional councils so that some three-fourths of the non-Jewish population had its own local government.33

Take, for example, the Druze village of Hurfeish in the upper Galilee (present population approximately 2,200). Originally a Jewish settlement until the fourth century, after a 600 year hiatus it was resettled during the Crusades and its Druze residents claim residence from that time. From then until 1967, it was governed by traditional institutions. In 1967, the Israeli Ministry of Interior convinced the local mukhtars to accept formal municipal status.

Since the traditional Arab leadership resisted municipalization for fear that it would interfere with their traditional dominance, it came about only when a more educated generation emerged.

The first important local public service to reach the village was its connection to the state water network in 1957, freeing its residents from reliance on local wells. The first paved roads came in 1962. In 1975 the rest of the village's streets were paved and in some cases widened. The city was linked to the statewide electrical grid in 1969 and street lights were installed a year later, both as a result of the introduction of municipal government.

For the Arab and Druze, the introduction of formal local government institutions became the means for attaining an increasing amount of control over their own immediate destinies. While they are not required to do so, most Israeli Arabs and Druze remain residents of their villages even when they commute to work in Jewish cities, so that they remain members of the socio-cultural system which their village local government protects and sustains. Israeli policy in this regard has been conscious and deliberate. This is evidenced by the establishment of separate Jewish cities adjacent to principle Arab cities and villages wherever the Israeli government felt the need to do for security reasons. With two exceptions, no effort was made to create mixed municipalities. Thus Upper Nazareth was created from scratch for Jews along side of Arab Nazareth and new towns for Jews were established in the middle of western Galilee in areas with many Arab villages. In all of these cases, the municipal institutions were kept separate so that each group could preserve its local autonomy through judicious use of the first face of territorial democracy.34 It should be noted that this strict division is now breaking down as members of the minority groups attain higher educational standards and greater prosperity.

A different kind of neo-milletization has been developed for those members of the old Jewish Yishuv and the immigrants who have joined with them to preserve an ultra orthodox way of life outside of the Israeli mainstream. Their territorial base tends to be confined to neighborhoods or quarters of major cities, though in at least one case they have developed municipal institutions to support their way of life. By and large, they maintain their separatism through separate government-recognized institutions, primarily schools and rabbinical courts, which receive government subsidies and are given a great deal of autonomy. These, of course, function within the "neighborhood" territories which these groups have staked out for themselves.

Territorial Democracy and Civil Community

The sum and substance of the foregoing is a strengthening of territorial democracy. Localities are increasingly finding ways to express territorially-rooted interests through political means. This is a matter of great necessity in a civil society dominated by politics, where even the economic sphere is subordinated to political concerns at almost every turn. In this respect, Israel is following a trend towards decentralization which seems to be worldwide.

The course of this pattern in Israel runs roughly as follows. From 1948 until the early 1960s, the trend was predominantly one of centralization. The state, animated by David Ben Gurion's "statist" philosophy, absorbed functions which in the pre-state Yishuv had been in the hands of local, voluntary or party bodies. At the same time, the need for local administration even in a small centralized state, combined with the democratic values of Israel's leadership, led to the quiet spread of local self-government for both Jews and Arabs. Local government law was regularized and new settlements acquired local governmental authority. From the mid-1960s onward, a trend toward decentralization has taken on greater intensity through the growth of local political power. Much of this is not visible in formal legislation, or even in the administrative orders upon which so much of the government of Israel is based. In characteristically Israeli fashion, there remains a wide gap between the formal framework, which is still pyramid-like in almost every respect, and the actual matrix of power relationships within the country.

Obviously, in neither case have all forces and factors led in the same direction. Contradictory developments abound, but overall, the pattern seems to be reasonably clear. In the earlier period of centralization, a basis was laid for local self-government. In the present period of increasing local power, new plateaus of statewide political integration are being attained.

The trend towards decentralization has been aided by two locally-linked phenomena. First, the sheer growth in size of the individual municipalities has strengthened the ability of local authorities to accept serious responsibility and make decisions with greater independence. There are approximately 20 cities of over 30,000 population in the state today, and another five are approaching that figure; these have attained sufficient critical mass to undertake the responsibilities entrusted to them by the state or by their citizens. This, in itself, makes a big difference.

Beyond that, there is an emergent local leadership able to undertake the tasks that need to be undertaken, and eager to do so, if only as a result of natural ambitions. Thus, Israel's shift from the peak of centralization into a period of greater decentralization has been assisted by the new-style politics emerging in locality after locality across the country. By 1977, a few of these new leaders began to move into the Knesset, given new opportunities by the Likud victory. They soon demonstrated their competence in the state arena. The 1981 Knesset elections brought more of them to the fore in state politics. Some gave up their local posts while others sought to combine state and local office. After 1981, 20 Knesset members also held local office, most as mayors of smaller cities. The localities may well be generating the most dynamic political leadership in Israel today. The question remains: will all this lead to structural and institutional changes that will close the gap between the formal and the informal distribution of power in the state?

A significant part of the answer to that question will have to come from the state authorities that dominate government in all areas but another part will have to come from the localities themselves. It has been suggested in this chapter that the formal local authority is not the sum total of local government in a particular jurisdiction. It certainly is not the sum total of local political or civic authority.

For one thing, power is far more diffused locally than it may appear at first glance. In addition to the municipal council and administrative departments, every locality has at least two local bodies that are essentially independent of the local council.35 One is the religious council, a governing body appointed through a formula which involves both local and state organs and responsible for the provision of local religious services.36 The other is the labor council which, as the local agency of the Histadrut, actually functions as the equivalent of a local chamber of commerce in the United States, a quasi-governmental body which plays a major political role locally.37 In addition, many of the small local councils elect an agricultural committee under the terms of a state law which provides for such an elected body when a sufficient percentage of the local population is engaged in agriculture. Finally, in the large cities there are neighborhood committees, one of which, in Kiryat Haim (Haifa), is formally elected by the local residents as a kind of borough council.38

All of these bodies, taken together, widen the scope of local political participation considerably. More than that, they also alter the shape of Israel's republican institutions and the quality of its democratic life. On one hand, the development of a multiplicity of local decision-making bodies clearly alters the structure of bargaining in the local arena, and perhaps beyond it as well, expanding the arena in which negotiation is both necessary and possible. More than that, the dispersal of bargaining power substantially weakens the strong tendency toward centralization or monolithic control in the country, acting to diffuse power among citizens or spokesmen for groups of citizens.

At the same time, the necessary interaction among these power nodes within the local community expands the role of local government by transforming localities into "civil communities" that is to say, communities organized primarily for civic or political purposes, able to utilize a wide variety of mechanisms to shape actions affecting them as localities so as to better serve their local value system. A civil community consists of six kinds of elements:

    The local governments that give the civil community its basic shape (the local council, the religious council).

  1. The agencies of the state or the offices of the national institutions located in the community which function to serve local as well as supralocal ends (e.g., the labor exchange, the police detachment, the local office of the Jewish Agency).

  2. The public nongovernmental institutions which function in the locality to supplement the governmental ones (e.g., the labor council, the various public welfare institutions, the local schools sponsored by overseas Jewish groups).

  3. The political parties or factions which compete within the locality to organize political power.

  4. The local interest groups (or powerful individuals) which effect decision-making in the community.

  5. The local value system as crystallized in the constitutional documents and traditions of the various local governments within the community.

When the institutions representing these elements work together, they provide a powerful means for widespread citizen involvement, for the sharing of decisions, and for bargaining and negotiation to set policy, In addition, they offer the local community greater leverage over decisions that affect it which are made outside its boundaries.39

The range and level of civic activity required to transform a municipality into a civil community are just now beginning to emerge in Israel as the population settles in, develops roots, and generates the economic base necessary for an active civic life. Since voluntary effort is required to sustain so many of the components of a civil community, one can only flourish under such circumstances. Moreover, even when the objective conditions are present, civil communities are fostered only in the appropriate cultural settings. Israel's latent Jewish political culture happens to be an appropriate one, but it confronts two others -- statist and subject -- that are far less so, if not actually inappropriate in many ways. Thus the transformation of simple municipalities into civil communities (a trend still in its early stages in Israel) represents a major change in the political character of the country, one that is likely to have great repercussions for the country as a whole in terms of increasing its stability (since more people will have a stake in that stability), expanding the range of political recruitment, and changing the bargaining process through which statewide decisions are made.


1. Weiss (1972); Freudenheim (1967), Chap. 9; Kalchheim (1976); Don-Yehiya (1987); Lazin (1979); Elazar (1977) and 1973).

2. Unfortunately, the literature on territorial democracy is very limited. Orestes Brownson was apparently the first person to use the term "territorial democracy" in The American Republic (1866). Kirk expanded upon it as a concept. This writer has commented on its role in American politics, see Elazar (1968). Certain aspects of the problem of the territorial organization of power have been well treated in Maas (ed.) (1959).

3. The articles of agreement of a number of the early colonies are preserved in their archives and displayed on appropriate occasions. Petah Tikva maintains its original covenant on year-round display in its municipal museum. See also Municipality of Petah Tikva (1964).

4. Buber (1950) makes a strong case for this claim; see in particular his Epilogue.

5. For a description of the development of Jerusalem in this pattern, see Vilnai (1960).

6. Cohen (1970) examines the problem of the city from the perspective of the Zionist founders and surveys the actual state of urban development in the country in those first generations. Cohen suggests that the shift away from concern with urban as well as rural settlement is also a product of the Third Aliyah revolution with its strong ideological dimensions. All told, he provides necessary corrective to the romantic view of rural Israel.

7. Tel Aviv has not been very well studied to date. For data on its development, it is necessary to go to the general histories of modern Israel. See, for example Robert Shereshevsky, et. al. (1968).

8. Central Bureau of Statistics (1983). In a significant number of cities and towns, territorial neutrality has led to the development of country-of-origin neighborhoods which, however, are unable to obtain direct local representation under the present electoral system. Perhaps as a result, ethnic ticket balancing is even more pronounced in the local arena than in Knesset elections.

9. Guttman (1963) and (1958); Av-Razi (1962); Adler and Hecht (1970); and Adler (1960).

10. Gevirtz (1962a). Ben-Aryeh (1965) describes one of these "small republics."

11. Weiss (1972); Guttman (1963); Elazar (1977); and Eisenstadt (1967).

12. Alderfer (1964); Bernstein (1957); Hoven and Van der Elshout (1963); and Samuel (1957).

13. Cohen (1970); Aronoff (1973b) in Curtis and Chertoff (eds.) (1973); Spiegel (1966); and Aronoff (1973a).

14. Adler (1956); Dror and Guttman (eds.) (1961); Kalchheim (1976); Samuel (1953); and Weiss (1973).

15. Weiss (1972); Guttman (1963); Bernstein (1957); Elston (1963); and Kraines (1961).

16. Baker (1968), pp. 153-159; Gat (1976); Meljon (1966); and Rosen (1962).

17. Torgovnik and Weiss (1972).

18. Martins and Hoffman (1981) (Hebrew).

19. Amiaz (1971) and Meljon (1962).

20. Aronoff (1973a).

21. Criden and Gelb (1976) and Lanir (1978).

22. Baldwin (1972) and Brown (1974).

23. Gevirtz (1962b); Katz et al. (1982); Rosen (1973) and Sharon (1968).

24. Kramer (1970) and Rosenbloom (1979).

25. King and Hacohen (1986).

26. Elazar et al. (1980); Elazar et al. (1983). This evaluation was commissioned by the International Evaluation Committee for Project Renewal on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Government of Israel. Carmon and Hill (eds.) (1979); Katzav (1983) and Walsh (1982).

27. Israel Institute for Urban Research and Information (1973); State Commission on Local Government (1981) and Rosen (1973).

28. Elazar (1983) and Kalchheim (1976).

29. Elazar et al. (1979).

30. Arian (1972); Elazar (1975) in Arian (1975) and Lantzman (1983).

31. Weiss (1972), Chapter 10. It should be noted that the recruitment and advancement of Sephardic and Oriental Jews is not spread evenly throughout the system of local government. The older and larger cities have disproportionately fewer while the new towns with their mainly "new immigrant" populations have disproportionately more.

32. Deshen (1970) and Weingrod (1966).

33. A good summary of the development of local self-government in the Arab towns is available in Stendel (1967). The best sources of specific data are the reports of the State Comptroller for specific towns. See also Stock (1968).

34. See Spiegel (1966). The two exceptions are Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Maalot-Tarshiha. The first was created immediately after the establishment of the state partly for security reasons and before a clear urbanization policy was established. The second represents a merger of two very weak local councils in an effort to create one viable one. In addition, Acre, Lod, Ramle and Haifa have mixed populations dating from before 1948 and Jerusalem has been a mixed city since June 1967. More recently, these "twin" communities have begun to develop cooperative activities on a variety of fronts, recognizing the regional links that bring them together even as they seek to preserve their respective ethnic identities.

35. Ibid.; Cohen (1962); Elazar (1977); and Torgovnik and Weiss (1972).

36. Don-Yehiya (1987) and Silverstone (1973).

37. Aronoff (1973a); Bilicky (1981) and Wilner (1969).

38. Kramer (1970) and Rosenbloom (1979).

39. For an elaboration of the civil community concept, see Elazar (1970).

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