Michael Starr
Sometimes I Say Things, Sometimes They're Even Interesting

Yes, Israel is a Country.

Israeli is Certifiably a State. Original Drawing by Samuel Starr.
Israeli is Certifiably a State. Original drawing by Samuel Starr.

Is Israel even an actual country? The common sense answer is ‘yes’. It is an obvious question, of the type that a child might ask with intent to annoy, in the same caliber as ‘Are we there yet?’ or ‘Does it hurt when I do this?’. Yet in former Education Minister Prof. Yuli Tamir’s October 11th Haaretz Op-Ed ‘Forget About Jewish or Democratic. Is Israel Even an Actual Country?’ this question is posed as a reasonable query, and one answered in defiance of common sense, to boot. Tamir tries to make the case that Israel is not a country by loosely and incorrectly adapting the Montevideo Convention’s criteria for statehood. Since we are pretending that this is a serious question, I’ll give it its due answer using the Montevideo Convention’s actual criteria to affirm the common sense answer of ‘yes’.

Criteria For Statehood

According to Prof. Tamir, the “accepted” standards for statehood to be realized are that a country must have 1) a defined territory; 2) an authority accepted by all citizens; and 3) political independence from foreign powers – namely the United States of America. Prof. Tamir doesn’t explain the source of these “accepted” basic conditions, but they appear to be very loosely adapted from the 1933 ‘Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States’. The convention has four criteria that are accepted as legal norms in customary international law for determining the status of statehood for a territorial entity, 1) a permanent population; 2) a defined territory; 3) government; and 4) capacity to enter into relations with the other states. The last two criteria have sometimes been folded together, as Prof. Tamir loosely does, into ‘effective government’. One article that is instructive in understanding these conditions of statehood is the second volume of the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia’s reports. It applies the criteria in question to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and clarifies on the application of all three. Acknowledging that the criteria are very broad and open to some subjective interpretation, they are still useful and available tools, and we will use them as we take the forty year journey into the desert around common sense to reach the obvious answer that Israel is indeed a country.

Permanent Population

According to the Montevideo Convention, the first criteria that one must consider when recognizing statehood status is whether or not the territorial entity in question has a permanent  population. In the Fact-Finding Mission’s report, the conclusion is that this simply means a stable group of people who live in the territory. They cannot be internally displaced or in constant migration as with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Prof. Tamir does not include this criteria in her attempted deconstruction of Israel’s statehood. There is a good reason for this. It is obvious to anyone who has lived or visited the country that Israel’s population is not in flux with mass displacement or migration. However, by your continued reading of the answer to the inciting question, and my continued writing of it, we’ve already accepted that we’ve temporarily abandoned common sense for the tedious thrall of academia-styled pedantics, so we’ll address the criteria anyway.

If we can accept homelessness as a substitute for internal displacement, we can identify that the vast majority of Israelis have stable living conditions. The OECD statistics for global homelessness lists Israel as having a homeless population of 0.02% of the total population. This is less than many Western countries, such as Canada or France. This indicates that there is no mass displacement until that one time of year that all Israelis seem to emerge from their dwellings like cicada, move apartments all at once, and Israeli social media becomes a competition of apartment advertisement mating songs.

As for the issue of mass migration, according to Pew’s 2012 Global Religion and Migration Database about 4.2% of native-born Israelis had the status of emigrated from Israel. This is almost half of the global average for emigration from country of birth in 2012. This indicates that most Israelis are staying in Israel, and are not in a state of mass migration.

It is worth noting that the Fact-Finding Mission’s report touches on common nationality being a potential indicator for permanent population, but finds it unhelpful for dealing with new nations, in which nationality has not yet coalesced. I contend that this misses the mark. Nationhood is a question of a unique shared identity with a connection to a territory rather than what is written on a passport. There are many stateless nations, such as the Kurds. It is worth considering, when looking at the applicability of statehood, whether the permanent population has a unique shared identity with an aspiration for statehood. With Israelis, it is undoubtedly the case that the majority of them loudly and self-critically identify themselves as having a set of unique characteristics and an identity to match. Further, according to a 2016 Herzl Center poll, 90% of Israeli Jews identify as Zionist. While questions of Jewish statehood arise, the Jewish People Policy Institute’s 2020 Pluralism Index shows that of one of the cleavages touched on in Tamir’s article, Israeli-Arabs, 74%  identify themselves as ‘Israeli’ in some fashion. Clearly Israelis have enough national spirit for a permanent population.

A Defined Territory

With the criteria of Defined Territory, Prof. Tamir argues that if borders are not defined or finalized or if territory is under sovereign or administrative dispute, the criteria is not met. However this is not the actual standard. According to the Fact-Finding Mission’s Report, the minimum requirement is a “core territory”. This requirement, which both South Ossetia and Abkhazia met, doesn’t require final settlement on territory or borders. The reasons for this are simple. Firstly, any fledgling state would be unable to meet this requirement. They’ve likely seceded from another country, and such break-ups are usually messy, with custody battles over territory, maritime visitation disputes, and keying of sovereignty being commonplace. Secondly, there are a great many long established states that are party to territorial disputes. Canada and the United States would not be considered states if a country must have final settlement of all its sovereign territorial limits. With Israel, its very easy to identify the core territories. The territory within the 1949 armistice lines is widely accepted as being the core territory of Israel, even by Prof. Tamir herself. UN resolution after resolution like the infamous UNSCR 2334, while critical of Israel’s presence beyond those lines, accept that Israel possesses the territory within the 1949 lines. Further, no state lays claim to that core territory. The armistice lines and the lack of external claims within them actually give Israel a very defined core territory, thereby meeting this criteria.

Effective Government

The criteria of an effective government is a complex one, having a few subcriteria. It can be divided into A) inward and B) outward effective government, and C) Independence from other states. The Fact-Finding report doesn’t explore Inward effective government, but Prof. Tamir claims that it is a matter of authority. She claims that the Israeli government has no monopoly on authority over its citizens. Outward effectivity is defined as the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Prof. Tamir claims that Israel lacks this capacity, but does little to prove it. What she does try to use is the overarching matter of foreign interference, claiming that Israel is not a state because it is effectively controlled by the USA. All of these assertions are as exaggeratedly melodramatic as they are incorrect.

On the matter on inward authority, Prof. Tamir claims that there are multiple sources of authority other than the government in Israel competing for power. She points to a few cleavages claiming that they have religious, cultural, and tribal authorities. Here she has a very broad definition of authority, most of which isn’t really relevant to statehood. She speaks to an authority of values, which isn’t the province of responsibility of the state unless one is a totalitarian. Religious, societal, and cultural values may inform our politics and policies, but the political game to forward them is played on the field of the government. Value clashes are the essence of politics, and are found in every single state. The groups Prof. Tamir references may not respect the government, but who does? And for that matter, who do Israelis respect? No country lacks disagreements over values, and I’m glad most don’t meet this unreasonable standard. Tamir’s version of authority is irrelevant to the question of effective government. While the Fact-Finding Report doesn’t explore inward effective government much, another document I’m familiar with does address it, when dealing with another form of effective authoritative control, military occupation. In the ICTY Naletilic case, it is advised that military occupation exists when an actor is the unhindered and sole military power capable of issuing and enforcing directions to a civilian population in a timely manner. Tack on sovereignty and citizenship to military occupation and you more or less have standard government. In Israel, the government is the sole body that can issue directives to the entire population and enforce them. They do not allow other bodies to enforce edicts large or small with violence. They can move to enforce these regulations in a reasonable time and without effective resistance. There is no other body that makes the claim to be at the level or above the government. With this in mind, it is reasonable to say that Israel has an effective government.

On the matter of outward government, Tamir claims that Israel lacks the capacity to engage in relations with other states. Her sole proof of this is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has “practically been eliminated”. She does try to brush the issue of capacity into the matter of dependence, but these are separate items. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is lacking in material support, there is no doubt that it has the capacity to engage in relations with other states, with 107 diplomatic missions around the world. As we speak there is a no-holds barred battle royale cage match between Israeli diplomats to decide who will get the spots of ambassadors for UAE and Bahrain. Israel is undergoing a renaissance in relations with other states, and has been managing previous relations for decades.

However, Prof. Tamir claims that both external relations and internal policy are dictated by the US. Her proof of this is that Israel has worked with the US to achieve peace treaties, and that Israel does not go to war without the approval of the US. The standard for independence is explored in the Fact-Finding report, which elaborates that the dependence on other states must not be on a systematic and permanent basis. There is no system in place in which we see the US de facto governing Israel. Unlike with South Ossetia, the politicians are not all citizens of one other state, nor did they gain their political prestige there. The US has no jurisdiction on Israeli citizens, nor means of taxing or drafting Israelis, nor can make them vote in US elections. When it comes to external affairs, many countries use mediators and third powers to strike treaties and deals. When going to war, all are subject to the pressures of superpowers. What country doesn’t feel the gravity of massive political bodies? This is yet another standard that most countries cannot meet. More than this, Israel has shown time and again that it is willing to act in defiance to the US. In Israeli eyes the Obama administration was practically defined by headbutting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. Israel has its own military hardware that competes with American hardware in arms trade. Israel has in the past struck military targets like the Osirak reactor to the chagrin of US leadership. This shows that the relationship with the US is not a permanent pursuit of American interests, but a consistent alignment of shared interests and operating principles. Israel is just as independent as any other country in the unipolar international environment. 


Is Israel a country? It should never have been in doubt that the real purpose of the question was not the answer. Within the actual widely accepted criteria for statehood, Israel has a permanent population, a defined territory, an effective authoritative government, the capacity to engage in foreign relations, and is not the satellite of another state. Under the standards Prof. Tamir presented, almost no state is a state. The question as to if Israel is a country was asked for the same reason kids ask their obvious questions. It was asked for the same reason that Haaretz promoted the article so much. To annoy. And kids seek to annoy in this manner to get attention. Well, it worked, attention has been given. I just request that next time ask normal questions like ‘why is the sky blue?’ or ‘do I have to go to school today?’. For the latter question, as former education minister, I’m sure Prof. Tamir will recognize that in her case she’s already been taken there. 

About the Author
A veteran of the IDF and Israel advocacy, Michael Starr has a MA for Government, Counter-Terrorism, and National Security at IDC Herzliya. To receive updates on new articles, follow Michael on Twitter at @Starrlord89.
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