Gideon Israel
Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center

The Israeli Government is a Falafel

In Israel, formation of a government coalition and the structure around it can be compared to a falafel. How so?

If Israel had a national food, falafel would be it, or at least in the top three. Thus, it works out well that the Israeli government be compared to the national food.

For the uninitiated, a falafel is a middle eastern sandwich, typically served in a pita bread, which includes salads, falafel balls, french fries and spreads like hummus and tahina.

How is the Israeli government like a falafel? Let me explain.

To make a falafel, the first thing you do is take a pita, cut it open at the top and begin filling it. Everything in the falafel is contained within the boundaries of the pita. In Israel’s government, the legislature and the executive branch can pass laws and create policy, but at the end of the day if the Supreme Court doesn’t approve of the law or policy they will rule against it, cancel the Knesset’s laws, and essentially do as they wish. Thus, the Supreme Court really provides the framework for everything that happens in the Israeli government. They are the pita inside which everything else operates.

The first thing that goes into the pita is the hummus spread. At a falafel stand, the falafel vendor will put a glob of hummus into the pita and thickly spread it around so that it covers virtually  the entire inner pita. In the Israeli government, the career bureaucrats, especially legal advisers, are the hummus. While the Supreme Court provides the final boundaries in which the whole government must operate, the bureaucrats and legal advisers provide a different type of limitation on Israel’s legislative branch and executive branch, even if a policy is allowed by the high court. The career bureaucrats and legal advisers, like the hummus, are the wall inside the pita within which the legislature must work. Policies that aren’t acceptable to them will ultimately meet various obstacles and hurdles, until they are ultimately blocked by the walls of bureaucracies, just as the contents of the falafel are ultimately encompassed by the wall of the hummus.

After the hummus is put in the pita, you turn to the deep fryer to take out the crisp, fresh falafel balls.  The falafel balls are the major political party which forms the government coalition and whose leader is the Prime Minister.  After each parliamentary election, the leader of the political party receiving the most seats in Knesset is generally charged with forming a government. This political party will form the government by building a coalition including other parties that controls a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset. This political party will set the main agenda for the government.  Just as the falafel balls are the foundation of the falafel, this party is the main component of the government.

As you take the crispy, hot falafel balls out of the deep fryer, they provide a unique flavor and could be eaten as is. However, the falafel balls, don’t stand on their own. While the falafel balls have their own unique flavor, and the main political party has its unique agenda, the falafel balls are dropped into the pita.  Thus, before even beginning to advance an agenda or make policy, the falafel balls – the main party – have been encompassed by the pita –  the Supreme Court–  and the hummus – the bureaucrats. Before the falafel ball has even begun it has already lost some of its crispiness and heat as it sticks to the hummus, and possibly even lost its shape when inserted into the pita and squished between its walls.

The falafel making process continues by filling your falafel with salads and spreads.   So, too, the main political party, must build their coalition. Which parties will it ask to join the government, and what will their status be in the coalition?

Typically, the first thing added after the falafel balls is a cucumber and tomato salad. This is a fairly dry salad which does not influence the taste of the falafel balls, rather it complements them, though a sizable amount of salad fills the pita. Often times, the first party asked to join the coalition will be a mid-sized party with which the main political party shares a generally common agenda.  Thus, it’s addition to the coalition doesn’t radically change the flavor, rather it complements the main party. Just as the cucumber and tomato salad has its own flavor, this party also has its own flavor, but it works in tandem with the main party.

When buying a falafel, the vendor usually asks in one breath: hummus, falafel, salad (referring to the cucumber tomato salad)? Since those are the three main ingredients after which one gets to more specific salads and spreads. The next thing added to the falafel is usually the cabbage salad and pickles, both of which are moist salads with a sharp flavor, and together they begin to alter the taste of the ingredients already inside the pita.  The cabbage salad and pickles represent small to midsize parties with specific agendas that may begin to derail the main party’s agenda, yet they are necessary to form a ruling coalition. While these parties are not strong enough to significantly alter the direction of the coalition, they do have an effect on it, similar to the pickles and cabbage salad, of which only a small amount is added to the falafel, but nonetheless have an impact.

At this stage, the falafel is nearly done, and the vendor will then ask if you want tahina. Tahina  is a liquidy spread, usually generously squirted on top of the whole falafel so that it penetrates the whole falafel. The tahina represents a small political party who is needed to form a ruling coalition, i.e. to reach the 61 seats which is a majority of Knesset seats, but really doesn’t share a common agenda with the main parties of the coalition. In fact, often there will be some niche agenda items which are in opposition to the policies and principles of the main parties in the coalition, but what can you do, this party is needed to form the majority coalition. Just as everything is affected by the tahina, which waters down the falafel balls, making them less crispy, not as hot, takes away from its unique flavor, waters down the salad, pickles and cabbage, so too the small party affects the coalition, even though it’s only a small part of the coalition and is added at the end.

Finally, we add the fries.  In many falafel stores, the fries are served on the side, because though the fries are part of the falafel, they don’t necessarily mix in with it. The fries are like the Arab parties. They make up about 10% of the Knesset (generally about 12 seats), but they never join the government, and generally stay on the sidelines. They represent a sizable percentage of the electorate, but nonetheless keep their distance from the mainstream political conversation.

While Israeli politics can seem a bit complicated for an outsider, thinking about it like a falafel may help simplify things.

About the Author
Gideon Israel is the Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center which focuses on strengthening US-Israel relations through mutually beneficial policy projects.
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