Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

Local Government in Israel


Daniel J. Elazar

The school of democracy is in local self-government. For a worker to take a serious part in the life of his trade union, or for a peasant to take part in the life of his village, there is no need for higher education. The first test to be applied in judging an alleged democracy is the degree of self-governing attained by its local institutions....Only local government can accustom men to responsibility and independence, and enable them to take part in the wider life of the state.
   Ignazio Silone, School for Dictators (1938)

This book describes and analyzes local government and state-local relations in contemporary Israel. While it focuses on the contemporary scene, it is written with a sense of the development of local government in the country since modern institutions were introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century and particularly since the inauguration of the Zionist enterprise in the latter years of that century.

While Israel is indivisible as a state, it is simultaneously a compound of communities, including local communities. Because of its development as a new society through the Zionist enterprise, Israel was created out of a series of local foundings which were only subsequently formed into a single countrywide community and still later, into a state. This is true whether we are speaking of:

  1. the first moshavot founded by the covenanting of their first settlers in the last generation of the 19th century,

  2. the kibbutzim and moshavim, the first of which were established by compact in the years just prior to World War I,

  3. the cities, most of which were founded as separate neighborhoods even before the neighborhoods were compounded into cities, and finally

  4. the regional councils which are federations of rural settlements.

In this respect, Israel is more like Switzerland and the United States, a state that has grown out of its local communities rather than one that was created to subordinate them. Moreover, as a new society, local autonomy in Israel was not a matter of vested feudal privileges which interfered with the development of democratic republicanism as was the case in most of Europe. Quite to the contrary, the localities were from the very first the principal repositories of republican government in its most democratic form. There is hardly a local authority in Israel, rural or urban, that did not have as its first form of government the general meeting, the assembly of all of its citizens (usually known as members since the organization was that of a cooperative association) as the highest organ of policy-making and the ultimate civil authority.

Thus, Israel has had no need to strengthen the central authority in order to promote democracy, as was the case in most of modern Europe. In fact, most of the arguments with regard to centralization or decentralization in Israel hold to the view that true democracy is best attained by vesting more powers in the local authorities and that it is only the necessities of governing a modern state and particularly one serving a developing country under siege that make centralization necessary in the first place.

This is clearly in line with the political culture which the Jewish people have carried with them since the beginning of Jewish history and which they have successfully applied in practice in their own commonwealths and communities insofar as they have been able to live as Jews. For Jews, there has never been a legitimately hierarchical state with sovereignty lodged in one human center. Ancient Jewry developed the notion that sovereignty can only be vested in God and that all human authority is delegated authority. Flowing from that was the principle enunciated clearly in the Bible that powers are to be divided among different departments and jurisdictions -- judges and elders, kings, priests and prophets, the nation as a whole and its various tribes -- all functioning under a common law and constitution. This approach was institutionalized in the Jewish political tradition which continues to influence the political behavior of Jews even if in recent centuries it has not been the only political tradition to influence them.

With all of that, Israel is well-known as a highly centralized state. The roots of this centralization go back to the ideologies of its founders, drawn from European conceptions of state sovereignty and governance. Modern conceptions of state sovereignty developed in Europe are based upon the principle that authority in the state must be centralized and organized hierarchically. Modern revolutions have sought to capture the state and its apparatus for the people and to make it responsive and perhaps even responsible to the people. But even for the revolutionaries the state remains essentially centralized and hierarchical. According to this theory, for a state to be properly constituted, there must be a central locus of authority and power. Local authorities, by definition, represent the periphery, and they and their powers are derived from the center in every respect. The center determines what the proper state-local relationship should be, with localities simply instruments of central authority to the extent that the center wishes to rely upon them and trust them with responsibilities, or to devolve competences upon them.

Under the conditions of the new centralized state, local communities were ipso facto made subordinate to the state apparatus. Indeed, one of the major struggles of revolutionary Europe was to eliminate local liberties or primordial local rights on behalf of central control in the name of the new ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, or whatever. This thrust to subordinate local governance was strengthened with the introduction of managerialism which offered a plausible justification for considering local government to be merely administration. Thus, the first step in the process was to transform the primordial commune into a "local authority" then, with the advent of managerialism, to transform its local governance role into a matter of local administration.

While the State of Israel itself borrows heavily from the kind of state structure developed in Europe to serve the reified centralized state, in practice those who operate the governmental institutions which serve the Israeli public have not found it easy to live within such a framework because it is so at odds with the people's original political culture. Consequently, they have developed various means to circumvent the formal processes of government to establish and maintain relationships that are more in line with the political tradition with which they are comfortable.

In sum, while formal centralization is hardly foreign to Israel's experience, it is quite foreign to the genius of the population of the state. This has led to an Israel which is far less centralized than would appear at first glance. Through informal processes, local officials have been able to gain a great deal of freedom of maneuver and control over local affairs. But it does not solve the very real problems of structure, powers, and jurisdiction which must be dealt with to make possible not only greater local self-government but better cooperative relationships among entities when their leaders will feel more secure in their respective competences.

In fact, the European definition of state sovereignty need not be taken at face value. There is another approach to the problem of state-building, developed for the new societies settled by Europeans who broke away from European rule, which views the democratic state as necessarily a compound of polities. This trend found its first modern expression in the United States and it has been a key element in the development of all other new societies as well. Israel is no exception.

"New societies" are those founded by covenant or contract "from scratch" as a result of migration of self-selected populations to "virgin" territories (that is, territories perceived by the migrants to be essentially uninhabited at the time of their settlement) whose settlers underwent a frontier experience as a major part of the process of settlement. Most new societies have been founded since the beginning of the modern era in the mid-seventeenth century. Thus each in its own way began as a modern society. Consequently, new societies stand out in sharp contrast to both traditional societies and those that have undergone modernization, whether from a traditional or feudal base, by virtue of that fact. The key to their birth as modern societies from the first lies in the migration of their founders to new frontier environments where they were able to create a social order with a minimum amount of hindrance from entrenched traditional or feudal ways of the past or on the part of existing populations needing to be transformed or assimilated.

Traditional or feudal societies were built upon linkages of people, communities, or estates whose origins are lost in history and, consequently are generally accepted as organic by their members. New societies, in contrast, are constructed upon conscious (and usually historically verifiable) contractual or covenantal relationships among individuals and groups, based on some sense of national vocation that bound their founders together and in some form continues to bind subsequent generations. The founders of the new societies, in creating social and political institutions anew on the frontier, were motivated by a common sense of vocation based on ideologies or commitments they brought with them, forged in the process of nation-building, a sense of vocation that continues to serve as a shared mystique (a future-oriented myth) to inspire or justify their efforts or those of their heirs at national development. The actual creation of their civil societies was almost invariably manifested through some kind of constituting act, usually one that was concretized in documentary form. Even if no single compact was involved, the social and political organization of each new society is based on many "little" compacts or covenants, necessitated by the realities of having to consciously and formally create new settlements and institutions on virgin soil, rather than allowing them to evolve slowly over time.

In new societies, then, local and national attachments are likely to go hand in hand, having developed as part of the same conscious effort to build something new. If specific local settlements preceeded the formation of national institutions, in others the reverse was the case. Under such conditions, local attachments have functioned primarily to allow for the expression of what are, in the end, nuances of differences within the overall thrust of the nation's animating mystique. While these nuances may be crucial to those who express them and may even lead to political conflict within the new society, in fact they function within the developing consensus.

More important, local attachments may well be used as a means to accommodate such differences of emphasis in such a way as to avoid head-on clashes between their proponents that might damage the overall thrust toward national integration. Thus, local attachments in new societies support political and social integration and differentiation on a new plane, where they operate in tandem to advance the overall goals of national integration while providing vital and necessary opportunities for differentiation within the overall consensus, opportunities which, if lacking, would actually jeopardize national integration itself.

Israel is a classic example of such a new society, along with countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The development of its system of local government is an equally classic manifestation of this phenomenon.

In recognition of this characteristic of Israeli society, the appropriate constitutional model for state-local relations in Israel is not hierarchical in the sense that the local authorities are to be considered administrative arms of the central government. It is not even central-peripheral in the sense that the local authorities are defined as peripheral to the central organs of the state. The State of Israel as a whole is a mosaic compounded of state and local authorities functioning together, each with its appropriate competences, powers and tasks and each deriving its authority directly or indirectly from the people. Elected officials, whether state or local, derive their authority equally from the people with their position in the overall structure essentially related to the scope of their respective constituencies.

The state provides the framework for this mosaic and its organs are responsible for its framing functions, but within that framework the local authorities and their organs are equally responsible for their respective functions. This is not to say that the state does not or should not exercise authority over local governments under the law in a wide variety of fields, including an ultimate authority under the constitution for the specific way in which local government is constituted. What it does mean, however, is that the right of local government is an inherent right guaranteed by Israel's constitutional tradition, accepted as a right in Jewish law, and reaffirmed in practice by the reality of the founding and development of modern Israel through the Zionist enterprise, part and parcel of the compact which unites the people of the land within a body politic.

The State Commission on Local Government (1976-1980) summarized this position in a resolution (adopted on March 8, 1977) setting forth the fundamental principles guiding its work in the following manner:

The State Commission on Local Government

The Subcommittee on the Structure of Local Authorities

The Status of the Local Government in the State of Israel:

Outlines (Adopted March 8, 1977)

  1. The governance system of the state is constituted by both the local and central government.

  2. a. The local authorities are the elected local expression of their residents.
    b. The local authorities will be elected by their residents.

  3. The aim of the local authorities is to represent their residents as well as to foster their physical, cultural and spiritual welfare while making them part of the tasks of the state.

  4. * The local authorities are authorized to undertake any activity that is not prohibited them by law, but must act in accordance with the law.

  5. The local authorities will have at their disposal any fiscal resources needed for fulfilling their tasks.


* Minority opinion -- Powers of the local authority should be defined on a wide range (without cancelling the U.V.) and the local authority will be authorized to carry out any activity included in this range.

Jerusalem, 20 Adar 5737
10 March 1977

This book describes, documents, and analyzes how this works in Israel in practice.

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