Elites or Masses: Who Drives Israeli Resistance to Territorial Withdrawal?

With much time and energy spent, I have finished my paper at long last for Jeffrey Winters’ course on Oligarchy & Elite Rule

This paper explores some of the tensions that exist between theories of elite rule and theories of pluralism and social movements in the context of Israeli control of the West Bank and (formerly) Gaza.  As usual, I came into this paper thinking that I would get very little constructive out of it in terms of advancing my dissertation research agenda, and, as usual, I was surprised by how relevant it became. 

I stress that this paper is very tentative in its conclusions and form, but hopefully it adds some useful insights.  Included below is the opening section of the paper.  If you are interested in reading the whole thing, fire me off an email and I will be happy to send it to you for review.

Elites or Masses: Who Drives Israeli Resistance to Territorial Withdrawal?

Perhaps the most volatile political issue in Israeli society today is whether or not the state should withdraw from the remaining territories it captured in the 1967 Six Day War, names the West Bank and, until 2005, Gaza. While it has been argued that that Israel would be left dangerously vulnerable to predatory opponents if it were to relinquish these territories, many have also suggested that the source of Israel’s security concerns is their very control. Many have insisted that these territories are integral to the national identity of the state while others have countered that Israel’s national character will be lost through the incorporation or continued political exclusion of its non-Israeli Arab populous. Israel’s political left has decried and bemoaned Israel’s continued state of war and conflict with its neighbors arguing that giving up these territories is Israel’s final and best hope of achieving peace. More skeptical groups have countered that peace on paper with opponents still committed to Israel’s destruction amounts to little more than tremendous political investment and national trauma to produce a counterproductive piece of paper. In a country so sharply divided over these critical issues, it comes as no surprise that Israel’s official positions on the political status of the territories have been, on the whole, neither decisive nor definitive but rather characterized by ambivalence and uncertainty.

With little consistently sustained movement toward either annexation or withdrawal, the best depiction of Israeli policy towards the territories remains one described by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1967, that of deciding not to decide.[1] Yet once having acknowledged that the occupation itself remains a hot button issue in Israeli politics such that neither consolidation nor retrenchment enjoys a hegemonic position in domestic discourse, explaining Israel’s continued control in terms of policy stasis is a weak explanation at best.[2] This is particularly true in a political environment characterized by constant international diplomatic pressure, violent internal rebellion and terrorism by the territories’ Arab populace, near global condemnation, and growing domestic discontentment with the moral, material, and military costs of continued occupation. Why, in the face of all these significant disincentives, has Israel still not withdrawn? Or, if such exogenous considerations are domestically irrelevant, why has Israel not formally annexed these territories?

It would be easy to provide an overdetermined rationalization drawing on the combination of strategic, ideological, religious, and material concerns highlighted above, but this would amount to little more than a complex way of saying, “It’s complicated.” An explanation rooted in politics, however, must be able to describe not only the complex interaction of such fundamental concerns, but also provide an account that is cognizant of the role of power and agency. Put another way, it must answer the question who does the outcome serve? When taken to the extreme, this approach can be as obfuscating as those which ignore the role of power and agency altogether. Certainly institutions, path dependencies, and normative attachments are frequently developed that limit the range of actions and outcomes available to actors in any political setting.[3] As Karl Marx once famously wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”[4] Acknowledging this truism, politics is constrained by structural concerns but it remains a realm of ideational contestation colored by the exercise of power. Indeed, institutions and social configurations do not in themselves determine outcomes. Rather actors must themselves be motivated to achieve particular aims within this framework in order for politics to have meaning. While actors are certainly in no small part constituted by this environment such that their agency can never be entirely independent of their social context, political agency remains necessary and meaningful. Examining the vigorous and often tense discourse that characterizes the Israeli debate over the future of the territories makes it abundantly clear that although the occupation itself has persisted, the justifications and debates leading to this outcome are hardly in stasis.

If it can be agreed that Israeli resistance to territorial withdrawal as expressed through policy outcomes is the product of some mobilization of political capital on behalf of some identifiable interest, whose interests is it that are being served? Here two models of political organization are immediately pertinent, class analysis and pluralism. The first approach, most frequently identified with Marxist modes of political analysis, assumes that domestic and international politics are organized along the shared interests of socioeconomic classes wherein a disproportionately wealthy minority frequently hold power over a relatively poor but numerically vast majority. In these models of elite rule, the interests and relative power resources of a ruling class largely determine political outcomes.[5] While many variants of elite theory acknowledge that elites must be responsive to mass interests and demands, the basic structure of rule is such that the most critical decisions remain in the hands of the rulers even in democratic systems of governance.[6] The second approach takes a more disaggregated view of society where people may transcend socioeconomic classes and other social cleavages to coalesce momentarily or in a sustained manner around collective interests.[7] While political elites may exist in a pluralist setting and power disparities certainly persist between groups based on the resources available to them, their sources of power are never independent of the masses such that they too must participate in and are driven by a complex diversity of interests.[8]

To test which of these theories is most relevant to the Israeli case, my paper will engage the literature on elite rule and pluralism, as well as introduce a more specific focus on the role of social movements in driving political outcomes. Given the overwhelming salience of the withdrawal question in the Israeli public sphere and the plethora of social movements lobbing the government and engaging in activism on this issue on both sides of the debate, this is an ideal case to test whether mass actors have any real say in political outcomes. Moreover, evaluating the effectiveness or lack thereof of such mass actors has important implications for understanding how occupation is sustained, evaluating the quality of Israeli democracy, and projecting the plausibility of a democratically legitimate settlement. Comparing the expected observable implications of each model against actual data of elite discourse and contentious mass mobilization, I find that although elite actors are often the final executors of policy, political moves that have any sustained momentum with regard to the territories have most often been reflective of and driven by mass sentiment and social movements.

[1] Ari Rabinovich, “Rice Criticises Israel on Settlement Building,” Reuters, December 7, 2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/featuredCrisis/idUSMAC758169, Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire : Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, 1st ed. (New York: Times Books, 2006), 127.

[2] For more on the role of ideological hegemony and political contestation in state contraction and expansion, see Ian Lustick, Unsettled States, Disputed Lands : Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank-Gaza, The Wilder House Series in Politics, History, and Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993).

[3] See Paul Pierson, Politics in Time : History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge Studies in International Relations. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[4] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978; orig. pub. 1852), 595.

[5] See Walter Korpi, “Power Resources Approach Vs. Action and Conflict: On Causal and Intentional Explanations in the Study of Power,” Sociological theory 3, no. 2 (Autumn 1985), Jeffrey Winters, Oligarchy, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 2008), 4, Gaetano Mosca and Arthur Livingston, The Ruling Class (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939), x.

[6] Gaetano Mosca, “The Ruling Class in Representative Democracy: Selections from the Work of Gaetano Mosca,” in Classes and Elites in Democracy and Democratization, ed. Eva Etzioni-Halevy (New York; London: Garland, 1997), 56-60, John Higley and Michael G. Burton, “The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns,” American Sociological Review 54, no. 1 (February 1989): 18.

[7] See Robert Alan Dahl, Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City, Yale Studies in Political Science, 4 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), Charles Edward Lindblom, Politics and Markets : The World’s Political Economic Systems (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

[8] Robert Alan Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (Yale University Press, 1991), 275-76, Robert Alan Dahl, “Further Reflections on ‘the Elitist Theory of Democracy’,” American Political Science Review 60, no. 2 (June 1966).

2 Responses to Elites or Masses: Who Drives Israeli Resistance to Territorial Withdrawal?

  1. Ben-Yehudah says:



    the elite controlled government is gong against the popular demand of the people that we give up no more territory. They have seen that strategy does not work from Gaza.

    The Yesha Council has been collaborate with the government, and receive their budget directly from the Office of the PM.

    They have stricken a deal with the government to take down certain settlements in exchange for maintaining others.

    I think they’re stupid to think that the gov’t won’t end up doing what it wants anyway.

  2. arielzellman says:

    Ya’aqov, I’d be really interested to get your feedback on the paper. Would you like to read it? Like I said before, it’s all very tentative but I think the evidence against elite based explanations for the persistence of Israeli control in the territories in the face of international opposition is quite compelling… even if the government makes a habit of selling out groups like the Yesha Council.

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