Israel - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Israel: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Israel (country), country in southwestern Asia, formed in 1948 as a Jewish state in the historic region of Palestine, and located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is bounded on the north by Lebanon, on the northeast by Syria, on the east by Jordan, and on the southwest by Egypt. Its southernmost tip extends to the Gulf of Aqaba, an arm of the Red Sea. Israel’s isolated position as a Jewish state surrounded by Arab and predominantly Islamic countries has influenced nearly every aspect of its foreign relations, demography, and economic policy throughout its history. See also Palestine, Modern.

The origins of the present-day struggle between Israel and Arab nations predate the creation of Israel. Throughout the early 20th century Palestine, as the birthplace of Judaism and site of the ancient Hebrew Kingdom of Israel, became a center of Jewish immigration, encouraged and organized by a movement known as Zionism. Jews clashed with the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the region throughout the British administration of Palestine from 1918 to 1948. In the years after World War II (1939-1945) the United Nations (UN) developed a plan to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Arabs rejected the plan, but the Jews accepted it, and the independent nation of Israel was created in 1948. Five Arab nations—Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—immediately attacked Israel. In the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949 and subsequent wars with its Arab neighbors Israel acquired territory beyond its 1948 boundaries. As a result of the Six-Day War of 1967 Israel took and later annexed the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights, a claim not recognized by most nations. Israel also occupied the West Bank (formerly of Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (formerly of Egypt), areas now partially under Palestinian Arab administration. Even Jerusalem, the city Israel claims as its capital, remains an area of dispute. Predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem has been part of Israel since independence in 1948; Israel captured mostly Arab East Jerusalem in 1967. Israel has since claimed the entire city as its capital. However, the United Nations does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

These territorial conflicts, combined with continued Jewish immigration, have caused major changes in population structure since Israel’s independence. Much of the Palestinian Arab population in the territory that became Israel fled or were expelled during the 1948-1949 war and became refugees in surrounding Arab countries. Still more Palestinians fled from the areas captured by Israel in 1967 (known collectively as the Occupied Territories; often referred to in Israel as “administered territories”), and thousands of Jews have settled in these areas. Meanwhile, Jewish immigration continued. By the late 1990s Israel had absorbed 2.1 million immigrants since 1948, four times the Jewish population before independence.

Economically, the twin challenges of national security and immigration have been very costly. The economic burden of the military fosters dependence on foreign economic aid, particularly from the United States . Further, political conflict has severely isolated Israel economically from much of the region. Meanwhile, although the absorption and integration of so many immigrants from all over the world is an immense financial undertaking, the constant influx of people with many different skills and backgrounds also contributes to Israel’s economic well-being. Both factors have stimulated the drive to create a successful industrial economy to help pay for necessary infrastructure and services.


The total area of Israel, based on the frontiers established at the end of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949, is about 20,700 sq km (about 8,000 sq mi). Areas occupied by Israel as a result of the Six-Day War included the West Bank (5,860 sq km/2,263 sq mi), the Gaza Strip (378 sq km/146 sq mi), the Golan Heights (1,250 sq km/483 sq mi), and East Jerusalem (70 sq km/27 sq mi). Because Israel annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem in 1981, the country officially includes them in total area and population figures. The United Nations (UN) and most countries do not recognize these annexations, however. Israel stretches north to south to a maximum length of 420 km (260 mi); from east to west it varies from 16 to 115 km (10 to 70 mi).

Natural Regions in Israel

There are five major geographical regions of Israel. The mountainous Galilee region dominates the northern section of Israel, extending east 40 km (25 mi) from a narrow coastal plain across to the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias). Mount Meron (1,208 m/3,963 ft) in central Galilee is the highest point in Israel. South of Galilee lies the Plain of Esdraelon, a densely populated and productive agricultural region 55 km (35 mi) long and 25 km (15 mi) wide. The plain runs across Israel from the vicinity of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River, which forms Israel’s eastern border. The coastal plains, containing most of Israel’s large cities, industry, and commerce, extend 195 km (120 mi) along the Mediterranean from just north of Haifa to Gaza. This region ranges in width from less than 1 km (0.6 mi) to 30 km (20 mi). The Judean and Samarian hills run north and south throughout most of Israel. The Negev is a triangular desert region in southern Israel extending north from the Gulf of Aqaba to a line connecting the southern end of the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, passing to the north of the city of Beersheba.

Plant and Animal Life in Israel

Israel’s variety of natural environments—marked by regional differences in elevation, rainfall, topography and soils, and latitude—produces equally varied plant life. Of about 2,500 species of plants, the majority are xerophytic, or capable of enduring prolonged dry spells. Three distinct vegetative regions, each comprising many subregions, cover Israel: Mediterranean in most of the northern reaches, steppe in the northern Negev, and desert in the rest of the Negev. This variety of geographical regions supports a wide range of agricultural products, including citrus fruits, bananas, cotton, tobacco, grapes, dates, figs, olives, almonds, and avocados. Original evergreen forests largely disappeared because of centuries of cultivation and herding. Through a reforestation program millions of trees have been planted, especially in the hilly regions. Today natural woodlands and reforested areas cover 8 percent of the land.

Animal life is similarly varied. About 100 species of mammals inhabit Israel, including wild boars, gazelles, ibexes, jackals, hyenas, wildcats, and badgers. There are about 380 species of birds, including about 100 that migrate seasonally to other areas. Partridges, cuckoos, bustards, sand grouses, and desert larks inhabit the area. A variety of reptiles, fishes, and insects (including locusts) also prevail.

Rivers, Lakes, and Coastline of Israel

The unnavigable Jordan River forms the northern portion of the borders between Israel and Jordan and between the West Bank and Jordan. The river flows through the Sea of Galilee (166 sq km/64 sq mi), which provides many species of fish and supplies more than half of Israel’s fresh water. The Jordan empties into the Dead Sea (1,020 sq km/394 sq mi), a highly saline lake supplying many important minerals. Parts of the Dead Sea lie in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea lie below sea level; the shore of the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface. Projects by Israel and Jordan to divert water from the Jordan River for irrigation and other uses have caused the level of the Dead Sea to drop. In 1996 the level was 408 m (1,339 ft) below sea level. Other principal rivers are the Yarqon, which runs through Tel Aviv-Yafo, and the Qishon River (Nahr al Muqaţţa‘), which reaches the Mediterranean Sea near Haifa.

The coastline of Israel, including the country’s western edge on the Mediterranean Sea and its southern tip on the Red Sea, stretches for 273 km (170 mi). Apart from limited sections of cliffs rising 10 to 40 m (30 to 120 ft), the coast has few headlands or indentations; much of it is low-lying and backed by sand dunes. Haifa, a natural harbor in the northern part of the country, and Ashdod, an artificial deepwater port to the south, serve as the main seaports on the Mediterranean. The port of Elat on the Gulf of Aqaba provides Israel’s only access to the Red Sea, making it extremely important to the country’s shipping interests.

Natural Resources of Israel

Although much of Israel’s desert regions contain poor soils, the northern Negev, the coastal plains, and the interior valleys provide patches of productive soils. An estimated 18 percent of Israel’s land is used for crops or orchards. Most cultivable soils in Israel require irrigation and careful management; of 3,920 sq km (1,514 sq mi) under cultivation, 44 percent is irrigated. The Dead Sea contains valuable minerals such as potash, bromine, and magnesium, all of which are exploited mainly for export. The Negev contains deposits of many minerals, including copper, phosphate, bromine, and clay. Small quantities of oil and natural gas are also mined from areas near the Dead Sea and south of Tel Aviv-Yafo.

Climate in Israel

Israel has a typical Mediterranean climate with cool, rainy winters and warm, dry summers. Temperatures vary considerably with elevation, exposure to the sea, and predominant winds. January is normally the coldest month and August the warmest. In upland regions such as Jerusalem, January temperatures average 9°C (48°F) while August temperatures average 24°C (75°F). In the coastal plains, including Haifa and Tel Aviv-Yafo, January averages 12°C (54°F) and August averages 25°C (77°F). The highest and lowest elevations are subject to extremes: Frost occurs a few days a year in mountainous inland regions, while summer temperatures can reach the upper 30°s C (lower 100°s F) in the Jordan Valley and in southern desert regions.

About 70 percent of annual precipitation falls as rain between November and February. Amounts of rain decrease from north to south and from west to east. The upper Galilee receives about 1,000 mm (about 40 in) of rain annually; the Judean Hills, about 700 mm (about 30 in); and most of the Negev, about 100 mm (about 4 in). Elat, the driest spot in Israel, receives only 25 mm (1 in) annually. Snow falls occasionally in higher parts of the hills during the coldest months. Frequent summer droughts, especially in the southern desert regions, make extensive irrigation a necessity. Heavy rains in these and other areas can cause flooding and erosion.

Environmental Issues in Israel

As a small country experiencing rapid population growth and industrialization, Israel faces serious air and water pollution as well as problems disposing of solid and hazardous waste. The government is taking steps to tackle these problems, such as requiring catalytic converters for vehicles, phasing out the use of leaded gasoline, initiating rehabilitation programs for polluted streams, conducting environmental impact assessments for industry, and supervising the production, handling, and disposal of hazardous substances.


The estimated population of Israel in 2009, including residents of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, was 7,233,701. Population density, including the area of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, was 356 persons per sq km (922 per sq mi). Israel is one of the most urbanized countries in the world. Some 92 percent of the population lives in communities of more than 2,000 people, and over half of Israel’s population lives in the metropolitan areas of its three largest cities: Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv-Yafo, and Haifa.

More than one-third of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel, where they make up 82 percent of the people. Arabs, most of whom are Muslims, make up almost the entire remainder of the population. Because the birth rate is greater for Arabs than for Jews, the Arab proportion of the population more than doubled between 1950 and the late 1990s.

Principal Cities of Israel

With a population of 701,512 in 2004, Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city. Israel claims that all of Jerusalem is its capital, but Palestinians dispute the claim and the United Nations has not recognized it as such. Arabs make up about 30 percent of the population. Jerusalem’s economy depends on governmental administration, light industry, tourism, and higher education.

Tel Aviv-Yafo, with 368,635 residents in 2004, is the center of an urban region stretching along 15 km (9 mi) of the Mediterranean coast and 10 km (6 mi) inland, with a total population of about 2 million. It serves as a commercial and industrial capital and also plays an important role in the cultural and recreational life of modern Israel. Other cities in this urban area include Holon, Peta Tiqwa, and Ramat Gan. Farther north lies Haifa, containing the country’s busiest port and main naval base. With a population of 269,417, the city serves as a center of heavy industry as well as religious and educational activities. Beersheba serves as the administrative, industrial, and cultural center of the northern Negev. It had about 184,200 residents in 2004.

Ethnic Groups in Israel

Although Israel’s Jewish population shares a common ethnic heritage based on Judaism, it is composed almost entirely of immigrants and descendants of immigrants from all over the world. In 1997 some 38 percent of Israel’s Jewish population was born outside of Israel. Foreign-born and native-born Israeli Jews trace their recent roots to more than 100 different countries, providing Israel with extremely diverse cultural influences.

The two main groupings of Jews are Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Ashkenazim, whose tradition was centered in Germany in the Middle Ages, now include Jews of Central and Eastern European origin. The Sephardim, whose tradition grew in Spain in the Middle Ages, now include Jews with ancestry from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean region. Historically the groups differ in religious rite, pronunciation of Hebrew, and social customs. Ashkenazic Jews, who formed a majority at the time of Israeli independence, continue to dominate political life as well as the upper levels of employment and education. Sephardic Jews immigrated rapidly to Israel in the decades after independence. The new state’s lack of resources to handle this flood, combined with cultural differences between the new immigrants and the Ashkenazic establishment, resulted in separate and usually poorer Sephardic communities. The Sephardim continue to struggle for greater economic and political influence. Beginning in the last years of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the late 1980s and continuing well after its breakup, hundreds of thousands of Ashkenazic Jews immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

Arabs, those Palestinians who remained in the region after Israel’s independence and their descendants, constitute almost all of Israel’s non-Jewish population. Following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights in 1967, Arabs in Israel had increased contact, and an increased sense of identity, with fellow Palestinians in those occupied areas. Despite legal equality and increased integration into Israel’s economy, for the most part Arabs and Jews live in separate areas, attend separate schools, speak different languages, and follow different cultural traditions. Although constant tension exists between the two groups within Israel, it has been overshadowed in recent years by conflicts involving Israeli occupation and Jewish settlement in Palestinian areas outside of Israel.

Languages in Israel

Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages. The Jewish majority speaks a modernized derivative of the Hebrew language, a biblical Semitic language. Immigrants are given intensive instruction in Hebrew, but many continue to speak their native language at home. Israeli Arabs speak the Arabic language. Both Hebrew and Arabic are taught in schools and used in legal affairs and in the legislature. Many Israelis speak English, Russian, or any of a number of other European languages. Some older Ashkenazic immigrants speak Yiddish, a Germanic language. Radio broadcasts, newspapers, and periodicals use several languages in addition to Hebrew and Arabic.

Religion in Israel

For centuries the region of Palestine has been a focus for three world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jerusalem, Hebron, Ẕefat, and Tiberias are the four holy cities of Judaism. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are sacred to Christians, and Jerusalem, as the location of the ascent of the prophet Muhammad to heaven, is also sacred to Islam. Haifa is the world center of the Baha’i religion, although there are few adherents in Israel today. The level of strict religious observance among all religions has declined in recent years, but religious affiliation remains very important socially and politically. Israeli law guarantees religious freedom.

Varying degrees of religious faith and practice exist among Israeli Jews. Ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim) who wish to impose strict religious law on all aspects of life lie at one end of the spectrum. At the other end lie those who observe no religious practices. The majority lie somewhere in between, observing some religious principles some of the time according to personal preferences and ethnic traditions. Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups remain at odds, resulting in occasional violent incidents over observance of the Sabbath, a holy day of rest, and the ways in which it is acceptable for women to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism. In recent years non-Orthodox Jewish groups have struggled against the exclusive rights of the Orthodoxy to perform conversions and other religious rites. Religion plays a significant role in politics, and religious parties hold many seats in the legislature.

About three-quarters of Israel’s non-Jewish population follows Sunni Islam. Most of the remainder are Christians or Druze, a distinct religious minority. The largest Christian denominations are Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox; many other Christian denominations are also represented in Israel.

Education in Israel

The quality of Israel’s education system and the high literacy rate of its people reflect the importance of education in the Jewish tradition. Absorption and integration of immigrant Jewish children from many countries and cultures continue as the central challenges. The Compulsory Education Law of 1949 and subsequent amendments provide for free and compulsory schooling for children aged 5 to 16 and additional free but not compulsory education to age 18. In practice about 90 percent of school-age children complete compulsory education. Jewish children attend either state secular or religious schools, both with instruction in Hebrew. Arab and Druze children attend separate schools emphasizing their history, religion, and culture, with instruction in Arabic. Some secondary schools specialize in technological, agricultural, military, or religious studies. There are also private religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox groups and Christian denominations. Literacy rates are very high among youth in both communities and for both sexes.

Postsecondary educational opportunities include universities as well as vocational and other adult education. Most students complete compulsory military service—three years for men and two years for women—before pursuing higher education. Universities, which operate under the authority of the Council for Higher Education, include the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, and Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. The Open University of Israel, established in 1974 in Tel Aviv-Yafo, allows students to learn through distance education and other forms of self-study. Other forms of adult education are especially important in Israel due to the high number of adult immigrants with varying levels of education in their home countries. Vocational and adult education subjects include nursing, teacher training, architecture, Hebrew language, art, music, and architecture.

Way of Life in Israel

Jews and Arabs of Israel lead largely separate lives, with little social and cultural exchange. Although of varying backgrounds, Israeli Jews share many unifying influences such as Judaic tradition, the Hebrew language, the Holocaust (the murder of millions of Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany), and the socialist ideals of the early Zionist pioneers in Palestine. Furthermore, most Israeli Jews share the formative experience of compulsory military service from age 18 and subsequent years of reserve service for one or two months per year. Nevertheless, lifestyles vary markedly based on such factors as country of origin, length of residence in Israel, level of religious observance, and urban or rural location. In general, family life and religious celebrations play an important role in society. Popular recreational activities include camping, hiking, and going to the beach, as well as use of the country’s many sports facilities, libraries, and theaters. Many Israelis also enjoy traveling abroad.

Many of Israel’s rural Jews live in two types of cooperative communities, the kibbutz and the moshav. In a kibbutz, residents own all property collectively and contribute work in exchange for basic necessities. In a moshav, families own separate farms but cooperate in some aspects of agricultural marketing.

Israel’s Arab population, although sharing a common language and many other cultural affinities, is divided along religious lines. Muslim Arabs, most of whom are Sunnis, live mainly in small towns and villages and follow many of the traditions of the Islamic world. Within this group, the Bedouins remain culturally distinct. Traditionally nomads with a tribal social framework, many Bedouins now live in permanent settlements in southern Israel. Christian Arabs reside mostly in the cities and follow the various traditions of Eastern or Western Christianity. The Druze, another distinct community residing in villages of northern Israel, hold cultural and religious ties with Druze communities in Lebanon and Syria.

Social Services in Israel

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs supervises a comprehensive welfare system and provides 75 percent of its funding. All workers must contribute to social insurance that provides such services as child allowances, workers’ compensation, and care for the elderly. Local authorities are responsible for delivering social services. Workers also pay a health insurance tax, which along with money from the state budget provides basic medical services to all residents of Israel.


Richness and variety characterize the artistic and cultural life of Israel. Drawing inspiration from Jewish tradition, cultural activity of the Jewish population has been greatly influenced by Israel’s struggle for independence and survival and by its rapid social change and state-building. These foundations were enriched by successive waves of immigration from more than 100 countries, each of which brought an element of cultural diversity and a wealth of artistic skills and traditions. Jews have always been prominent in literature, art, and music, but Israeli Jews have made a conscious effort to create a unique artistic tradition. Israeli Arabs maintain a rich heritage of music, theater, dance, and art that draws on traditions of the wider Arab world. Although the majority of Arabs and Jews of Israel remain separated socially and culturally, there has been significant collaboration between Arab and Jewish artists and writers in recent years. For example, a 1994 production of Romeo and Juliet by Jewish and Arab actors received international acclaim.

The following sections deal primarily with the arts of the Israeli Jewish population.

Literature in Israel

The most remarkable achievement of Israel’s artistic tradition has been the revival and modernization of the Hebrew language after centuries of disuse. Although biblical Hebrew had only about 8,000 words, modern Hebrew uses about 120,000 words. The Academy of the Hebrew Language, founded by the Israeli parliament in 1953, guides the continuing development of the Hebrew language. Hebrew authors have published numerous books of poetry and prose since Israeli independence. Common themes include the promise and problems of the new state, Jewish identity, and loneliness and isolation of the individual. Several Israeli writers have won international recognition, notably Amos Oz, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, A. B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, David Shahar, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev. Founded in 1962, the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature has rendered hundreds of Hebrew works of fiction, drama, poetry, and books for children into 40 different languages.

Performing Arts in Israel

Israel is one of the world’s most active and progressive centers for music. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is world-renowned, as are many Israeli musicians such as Schlomo Mintz, Daniel Barenboim, and Itzhak Perlman. Musicians compose and perform music of every kind for audiences all over Israel, and musical education is taken very seriously. The arrival of more than 600,000 Jews from the former USSR in the 1990s brought a wave of fresh talent and vitality to the musical scene. Opera and dance are also extremely active in Israel. Dance includes distinctive Israeli forms derived from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Several major professional companies perform choreographed stage dance. Theater also flourishes in Israel; major theaters are located in Tel Aviv-Yafo (including the national Habima Theater), Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beersheba.

Visual Arts in Israel

In 1906 the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts was founded in Jerusalem to encourage talented Jews to study art in Palestine. Like the country’s writers and performers, Israeli painters, sculptors, and photographers have examined personal and social issues relating to Jewish identity and statehood. Artist studios, galleries, and shops abound in Ẕefat and Yafo. Many Israeli artists and sculptors, including Yaacov Agam, Dani Karavan, and Reuvin Rubin, have gained international recognition for their work. Filmmaking began in Israel in the 1950s and has developed strongly under the Israel Film Center. Cinema exports are growing, and foreign productions are sometimes filmed in Israel.

Museums and Libraries in Israel

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, founded in 1965 as the national museum, houses collections of Jewish art, modern sculpture, and archaeological artifacts. It also houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is dedicated to Jews who died in the Holocaust. Other important museums include the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Haifa Museum. Several museums, including the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, display exhibits about the Arab and Islamic traditions of Palestine and Israel. Altogether there are more than 120 museums in Israel, which receive about ten million visitors each year. There are more than 400 libraries in Israel.


The challenges of maintaining national security while absorbing and integrating massive waves of immigrants have characterized the economy of Israel throughout its statehood. Defense spending remains one of the world’s highest per capita, and immigration strains the availability of jobs and housing. Lack of natural resources and economic isolation from surrounding Arab states add further challenges. In spite of these factors, Israel’s economy has grown rapidly, and Israelis enjoy a high standard of living. With a total gross domestic product (GDP) of $163.96 billion in 2007, Israel’s per capita GDP of $22,834.90 was one of the highest in the world. Economic diversification, high investment, a skilled and educated workforce, and a commitment to research and development have contributed to Israel’s economic success. Nevertheless, a steadily increasing trade deficit, high inflation (averaging 0.5 percent in the period 2007, down from more than 400 percent in 1984), and reliance on foreign loans and aid threatened the economy through the late 1990s. To offset its trade deficit, Israel continues to pursue the export of high-technology products. If lasting peace in the Middle East could be achieved, Israel would undoubtedly benefit from increased trade with its Arab neighbors and less of a need for defense spending. In 1998 Israel proposed a plan to phase out economic aid from the United States over a period of 10 to 12 years beginning in the year 2000.

Government Role in the Economy of Israel

Because of the pressing nature of Israel’s economic problems—national security and absorption of immigrants—the government has played a central role in economic policymaking and intervention throughout Israel’s history. For example, the government has been heavily involved in planning, subsidizing, and controlling agriculture since independence. The government has also taken decisive action to avert economic crises. For example, in the early 1980s it instituted an emergency program of spending cuts and austerity measures to counter hyperinflation. The government, including government-owned businesses, remains the largest employer, particularly in the public services sector. To reduce government spending and stimulate economic growth, the government began privatizing many of its enterprises in the 1990s.

Labor in Israel

In 2007 Israel’s active civilian labor force was 2.9 million, including about 250,000 Israeli Arabs. Women account for 46.3 percent of the workforce. In descending order, public services, manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, and financial and business services employed the largest number of workers. Unemployment was 7.3 percent. About 100,000 foreign workers—mainly from Romania, Thailand, and the Philippines—worked in such fields as agriculture and construction, largely replacing Palestinian workers. (After a series of demonstrations, strikes, and riots known as the intifada began in 1987, many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were prevented from going to their jobs in Israel.) In addition to the civilian labor force, about 180,000 Israelis served in the military.

Founded in 1920, the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) represents most of Israel’s labor force. Serving as an umbrella group for separate trade unions, the Histadrut offers health insurance as well as recreational, educational, and other services to its members.

Agriculture and Fishing in Israel

The earliest Zionist settlers in Palestine viewed agriculture as a key ingredient of successful colonization, for meeting food needs and for fostering an ideological bond between Jews and the land. Since independence the Israeli government has promoted agriculture to attain self-sufficiency and to provide new immigrants with food and employment. Between 1948 and the late 1990s the land area under cultivation has almost tripled, in large part because of modern irrigation, mechanization, and other technologies. About 750 kibbutzim and moshavim, although occupied by only 6 percent of the total population, produce a large portion of Israel’s crops. While many Israeli Arab farmers have adopted many Israeli farming methods with considerable success, others continue to use less mechanized, more traditional methods.

Because of extensive investment in these methods and technologies, Israel meets most of its food needs through domestic production and grows several crops for export. Industrial crops (groundnuts, sugar beets, cotton), cereals, tomatoes, a wide variety of fruit, dairy products, poultry, and eggs are the main food crops. Primary exports include citrus and other fruit, cotton, avocados, and potatoes. Flowers account for almost a quarter of agricultural exports by value. The majority of Israel’s annual fish catch consists of freshwater fish raised in artificial ponds. Although in recent decades the relative importance of agriculture has declined—in terms of GDP, percentage of the population it employs, and percentage of total export revenues—it remains essential to Israel’s economy. In 1996 agriculture, including forestry and fishing, accounted for about 2 percent of the GDP and employed about 3 percent of the workforce.

Mining in Israel

The chief assets of the Israeli mining industry are the huge quantities of bromine, potash, magnesium, and other minerals extracted from the salt deposits of the Dead Sea. Israel is the world’s largest exporter of bromine. Extensive quarrying of marble and granite fulfills domestic construction needs. Copper, phosphates, bromine, and clay are mined in the Negev.

Manufacturing in Israel

Despite limited natural resources, Israel’s manufacturing sector is the most diversified and most technologically advanced of any country in the Middle East. The needs of the defense industry, together with a desire to boost export earnings, have encouraged government investment in industry, especially in research and development. A skilled and educated workforce, continually renewed by immigration, also aids manufacturing. Israel’s industrial output is among the fastest growing in the world. In 1996 the industrial sector, including mining and construction, accounted for 27 percent of GDP and 80 percent of export earnings, and employed 28 percent of the workforce.

Until the 1970s manufacturing was concentrated on traditional branches such as food processing, textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and metal products. Since then Israel has moved into high-technology fields such as medical electronics, telecommunications, computer hardware and software, and diamond polishing. Cut diamonds and electronic equipment are now among Israel’s biggest export earners, together with chemical products, textiles, transport equipment, and machinery. The Tel Aviv-Yafo metropolitan area and Haifa serve as the primary manufacturing centers.

Services in Israel

The service sector remains the largest in terms of GDP and percentage of labor force it employs. In the late 1990s it contributed about 60 percent of GDP and employed 69 percent of Israel’s workforce. Mainly because of the continuing task of absorbing immigration, public services such as education, health, and welfare remain the primary service industries. Business and financial services, wholesale and retail trade, and transportation, storage, and communication services are also important.

Tourism of Israel

Historical and religious sites as well as the favorable Mediterranean climate make Israel a popular tourist destination. In 2007, 2,068,000 tourists visited Israel, spending $3.1 billion. Tourism tends to decline after terrorist incidents occur or when political unrest intensifies. Western European tourists account for more than half of all visitors, followed by North Americans (20 percent), Eastern Europeans (11 percent), and Asians (10 percent). Many Christian pilgrims visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and many Jews come to see Israel’s Jewish culture and holy sites. Apart from cultural and religious sites, the Dead Sea region, Elat, and the Mediterranean coast are popular destinations.

Energy in Israel

Imported oil and coal supply almost all of Israel’s energy, supplemented by very small amounts of locally extracted oil, natural gas, and oil shale. Egypt and Mexico supply the largest quantities of oil, while coal comes from South Africa, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Israel is a world leader in the development of solar energy production, particularly in the use of solar panels for home water heating. Research continues on alternative sources of energy such as wind power.

Transportation in Israel

Israel’s chief means of transportation is its road network, which totaled 17,446 km (10,840 mi) in 2004. Motor vehicle ownership has increased rapidly, reaching 234 passenger vehicles per 1,000 persons in 2004. Traffic congestion and accidents can be serious problems. A national company runs popular, affordable, and frequent bus services in many areas. State-owned railroads operate 958 km (595 mi) of track. Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv-Yafo serves as the major airport. Israel’s national airline, El Al, provides international service, while Arkia provides domestic service. Major ports include Haifa in the north, Ashdod on the central Mediterranean coast, and Elat on the Gulf of Aqaba. Because of boycotts by neighboring Arab nations, Israeli shipping remains vital to Israel’s trade with more distant partners by way of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Communications in Israel

Israel has well-developed networks for domestic and international communications. On average, houses contain at least two telephones, and there are 1,120 cellular telephones in use for every 1,000 persons. Internet and electronic mail use has grown rapidly. The Communications Ministry controls telecommunications, while the Postal Authority operates mail services. All media enjoy freedom of communication in Israel, and many emphasize news and politics. The Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) is responsible for public radio and television stations. State-run Kol Israel (Voice of Israel) operates several radio stations, broadcasting in 17 languages. The IBA completely ran television broadcasting until 1993, when a law was passed that opened the field to commercial stations. Many Arab households tune into television broadcasts from neighboring states. Israel has 34 daily newspapers; about half are in Hebrew and half in other languages, including Arabic and English. Prominent dailies include Ha’aretz, Davar, Ma’ariv, Yedioth Ahronoth, and the Jerusalem Post. There are also more than 1,000 periodicals.

Foreign Trade in Israel

The cost of Israel’s imports has exceeded the value of its exports every year since 1948. This trade deficit, while growing in dollar amount to $12.8 billion in 1996, is decreasing in relative terms. In 1950 exports financed only 14 percent of imports; in 1996 they financed 71 percent. Grants and loans from the United States and other governments, donations from Jewish fund-raising organizations, bank loans, and funds brought in by immigrants have covered annual deficits. Israel owes the bulk of its external debt to the United States. Expanding exports has been a primary goal of the government throughout Israel’s history.

Chief imports include rough diamonds, machinery, chemicals, vehicles, crude petroleum, and consumer goods. Primary sources of imports include the United States, Belgium and Luxembourg (which constitute a single trading entity), Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan. Main exports include finished diamonds, machinery and parts, chemicals and chemical products, electronic equipment, and agricultural produce (especially citrus fruits). Trading partners for exports include the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Belgium and Luxembourg, and Hong Kong.

Israel is a member of the World Trade Organization and has enjoyed free trade agreements for industrial goods with the European Union (formerly the European Community) since 1975 and the United States since 1985. Israel also participates in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Currency and Banking of Israel

Israel’s currency is the new Israeli sheqel (NIS), consisting of 100 agorot (4.10 NIS equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Bank of Israel (1954) issues currency and handles government banking transactions. There is a flourishing banking sector with many specialized merchant banks, foreign banks, mortgage banks, and banks set up to aid industry and agriculture. A stock exchange is in Tel Aviv-Yafo.


Israel is a multiparty parliamentary republic with ultimate authority vested by the people in the legislature, or Knesset. There is no written constitution, but a number of basic laws passed by the parliament over the decades determine government operations and activities. Israel has a unitary, or nonfederalist, system of government; the central government in Jerusalem runs most government functions.

Although Israel achieved independence in 1948, its political system derives from the period of British mandate over Palestine (1922-1948). Under the mandate, awarded by the League of Nations, Britain temporarily governed the area on behalf of its Jewish and Arab inhabitants. The mandate established the Jewish Agency for Palestine, a body that acted as the international diplomatic representative of the Jewish community in Palestine (Yishuv). During the mandate period the Yishuv established institutions for self-government, including an assembly that used a system of proportional representation to distribute the assembly’s seats after elections. The assembly met annually, electing a council that worked with the Jewish Agency to administer Yishuv affairs between assembly sessions. After the United Nations (UN) adopted a plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in 1947, a provisional government consisting of a legislature, a cabinet, and a president was chosen from among the members of the council and the Jewish Agency. This provisional government functioned from the day of independence (May 14, 1948) until February 14, 1949, at which time its authority was transferred to the first Knesset.

The Knesset’s first legislative act was to enact a law, often referred to as the Small Constitution, adopting for the new government many of the administrative structures and procedures created during the mandate. Knesset members discussed at length the possibility of drafting a constitution. Many felt that the constantly changing social conditions caused by mass immigration after independence made necessary a delay in drafting a permanent document. Others expressed concern over the relationship between state and religion and how to incorporate the precepts and ideals of Judaism into the proposed document. After more than a year of discussion, the Knesset decided to delay adoption of a formal and comprehensive document. Although Israel remains without a written constitution, over the years the Knesset has passed many laws, known as Basic Laws, defining governmental structure and policy. The Basic Laws are intended to form portions of a comprehensive document in the future.

Executive of Israel

The Knesset elects a president, the head of state, who may serve a maximum of two five-year terms. The president holds little real power but performs such ceremonial functions as opening the first session of a new Knesset and receiving foreign diplomatic representatives.

The president selects the leader of the largest party in the Knesset to become the prime minister, or head of government. At the start of a new term the prime minister forms a cabinet of ministers (known as the government) with as many as 18 members, at least half of whom must be from the Knesset. As the chief executive officer, the prime minister determines the agenda of cabinet meetings and has the final word in policy decisions.

The establishment of a new government requires a vote of confidence from the Knesset. Because no party has ever held an absolute majority of Knesset seats, Israel’s governments have always been coalitions of several political parties. Compromises on policies and positions are central to coalition bargaining. The prime minister and the government may be ousted by a majority vote of no confidence in the parliament. The government’s four-year term may also be shortened by its own resignation, by the Knesset’s decision to dissolve itself and call for new elections, or by the resignation or death of the prime minister.

Legislature of Israel

The legislature, or Knesset, is a single-chambered body of 120 members serving a term of four years. As the supreme authority in the state, the Knesset’s main functions include votes of confidence or no confidence in the government, legislation, participation in formulating national policy, approval of budgets and taxes, election of the president, and general supervision of the administration’s activities. The cabinet presents most legislation, although Knesset committees and individual members can initiate bills. Passage of any legislation requires a simple majority of the members present at the vote. An absolute majority is required for the election of the president and for changes in the system of proportional representation and the Basic Laws.

All Israeli citizens 18 or older may vote. Elections are nationwide with the entire country as a single constituency. Citizens vote not for individual candidates but for political parties, which prepare ranked lists of their candidates. Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total vote; parties must receive at least 1.5 percent to gain a seat. The Knesset may dissolve itself and call for new elections before completion of its term.

Judiciary in Israel

The judiciary system consists of both secular and religious courts. The president—upon the recommendation of a nominations committee composed of Supreme Court justices, practicing lawyers, and members of the Knesset and cabinet—appoints judges for both types of courts. Judges hold office until death, resignation, mandatory retirement at age 70, or mandatory removal for violations of the law. As the highest court, the Supreme Court hears appeals from lower courts in civil and criminal cases. It also serves as the primary guardian of fundamental rights of Israeli citizens and protects individuals from arbitrary actions by public officials. The Supreme Court cannot invalidate Knesset legislation, but it may nullify administrative actions and ordinances it regards as contrary to Knesset legislation. Below the Supreme Court are district courts and numerous municipal and magistrate courts. Military courts hear matters involving military establishment and personnel; the highest of these courts is the Military Court of Appeal, which is responsible to the Supreme Court.

Religious courts have jurisdiction over personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, adoption, alimony, guardianship, and inheritance. The High Rabbinical Court of Appeal is the highest Jewish religious court and is overseen by the Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbis. Various Christian denominations, Druze, and Muslim sects operate separate religious courts that handle similar matters.

Local Government of Israel

Israel is divided into 6 administrative districts and 14 subdistricts. The cabinet’s interior minister appoints and oversees district officials, who in turn oversee municipal and local councils. Citizens choose mayors and council heads in direct popular elections and other council members through party lists similar to those in national elections. District officials draft legislation pertaining to local government, approve and control local tax rates and budgets, review and approve bylaws and ordinances passed by locally elected councils, approve local public works projects, and distribute grants and loans to local governments. Although local government is highly dependent on the national government for its budget, it acts as an important mechanism for providing services to communities. Adhering to national standards, local governments handle matters of education, culture, health, social welfare, road maintenance, public parks, water, and sanitation.

Political Parties of Israel

Despite a wide range of secular and religious political parties, two parties with origins in the prestate period long dominated Israeli politics. The Israel Labor Party, formed in 1968 when three previous labor parties merged, supports Zionist and socialist policies such as continued Jewish immigration, a social welfare state, and a primarily state-planned and regulated economy. The Labor Party also supports separation of religion and state, equality for minorities, and negotiated settlement between Israel and the Arab states concerning the land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, known collectively as the Occupied Territories.

The other major party, Likud, emerged in 1973 from an alliance of several right-of-center parties. It has focused on retaining the Occupied Territories and privatizing the economy, and it remains strongly nationalist and assertive in foreign and security matters. Whereas neither party has achieved an absolute majority in the Knesset since independence, the Israel Labor Party and its predecessors predominated until 1977, when Likud became the largest party.

Labor regained the lead in the Knesset in 1992, but lost it again in 2003, when its coalition, known as One World, won only 19 seats to Likud’s 38. The Labor Party declined further and was no longer seen as a dominant party after winning only 13 seats in the 2009 elections.

The Kadima party was established by former Likud leader Ariel Sharon in 2005. The party was established primarily to support Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, a decision that was opposed by some within Likud. Sharon took many former Likud supporters with him in forming Kadima. In the 2006 parliamentary elections Kadima won the single largest bloc of seats and set up a coalition with Labor, the Shas Party, and the newly formed Pensioners Party, which is concerned with the rights of the elderly. The remaining supporters of Likud won only 12 seats in the Knesset as opposed to 38 in the previous parliament. In the 2009 elections Kadima won the most seats of any party but was unable to form a coalition government and went into the opposition.

Various other political parties play significant roles and are sometimes pivotal in sustaining or opposing the government in power. Meretz was formed in 1992 as a coalition of leftist groups. Yisrael Ba’aliya was founded by Natan Sharansky to compete in the 1996 parliamentary elections and to encourage Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, while promoting the needs of new immigrants to Israel. In 2003 it merged with Likud. Another party based largely among Russian or former Soviet Union immigrants is Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Is Our Home), led by Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant to Israel from Kishinev, Moldova.

Arab political parties have been involved in Israeli politics since independence. The Arab Democratic Party (ADP), made up entirely of Arab candidates, formed in 1988 to support moderate policies more acceptable to Zionists in order to exert influence within the political system. Many Arabs support communist parties, often more as a form of dissent against the establishment than from ideological commitment.

Religious parties generally play a crucial role in forming and maintaining governments. Shas, a party of Orthodox Sephardic Jews stressing ethnic pride and traditional values, maintains a conciliatory position on Middle East peace. United Torah Judaism, a party of Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, seeks to enhance the role of religion in the state and opposes all forms of secularism. The National Religious Party (NRP) advocates legislation based on Judaic religious law. It promotes rapid Jewish settlement of Israeli-occupied territories based on divine right to inhabit biblical lands.

Defense of Israel

Founded in 1948, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) acts as a unified command over all of Israel’s air, land, and sea forces. In 2006 Israel maintained a standing army of 168,000 with an additional 430,000 in reserve forces. Most Israelis are inducted into the army at age 18. Jewish and Druze men serve for three years, and unmarried Jewish women serve for 21 months. Men continue in reserve duty until age 55 for up to 45 days a year (or longer in the event of emergency). Women are rarely called for reserve duty, but technically, unmarried women may be called until age 50. Arabs are exempt but may serve voluntarily. By an agreement dating from the late 1940s, Israel’s minister of defense could grant religious Jews exemptions from military service. However, in December 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that this agreement was illegal and instructed the Knesset to pass legislation to regularize the situation within one year. A government-appointed chief of staff heads the IDF and is responsible to the cabinet minister of defense. Although the IDF as an institution has no formal or informal role in the political process, retired senior officers have become significant political figures.

International Organizations in Israel

Israel has been a member of the UN since 1949 and is a member of many other international organizations. It participates in a wide range of UN activities, including nongovernmental organizations addressing issues such as aviation, immigration, communications, meteorology, trade, and the status of women. Israel’s relationship with the UN has varied considerably. The UN partition plan created the state, and UN resolutions in 1967 and 1973 called for acknowledgement of Israel’s sovereignty by all states in the region. However, Israel has been excluded from regional UN caucusing groups, and hundreds of UN resolutions have been critical of Israeli policies and activities. For example, in 1975 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that labeled Zionism as a form of racism; the General Assembly repealed the resolution in 1991. In 1998 the General Assembly passed a resolution acknowledging anti-Semitism (hostility toward Jews) as a form of racism.

Israel is a member of many agencies within the UN, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Israel also participates in other international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Israel is excluded from many regional organizations uniting surrounding Arab nations, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which embraces every Middle Eastern nation except Israel and Cyprus, and the Arab League, which promotes the common interests of Middle Eastern and North African Arab states. Through the 1980s most Arab nations did not recognize Israel. After peace talks began in the 1990s, many began tentative diplomatic relations.


Although the modern state of Israel came into being in 1948, its history is based on an ancient Jewish connection to the region, a recurrent theme in Jewish tradition and writing since the 2nd millennium BC. King Saul established the first Hebrew state, the Kingdom of Israel, in the region of Palestine in the 11th century BC. Saul’s successors, David and Solomon, further consolidated the kingdom. The southern part soon became the independent kingdom of Judah. When both kingdoms were defeated by the 6th century BC, most Jews were exiled from Palestine. The desire of the exiled Jews, known collectively as the Diaspora, to return to their historical homeland is recorded in the Bible and became a universal Jewish theme after Roman rulers destroyed the ancient city of Jerusalem in AD 70. For the history of Palestine before the 19th century, see Palestine, Ancient.

The modern concept of a Jewish homeland in Palestine began in the late 19th century, when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1880 Palestine had a Jewish population of about 25,000, composing about 5 percent of the total population in the predominantly Arab region. Jews resided primarily in Jerusalem and in other holy cities such as Ẕefat, Tiberias, and Hebron. In the early 1880s Eastern European Jews, primarily from Russia and Poland, began to immigrate to the region to escape persecution (see Pogrom). Beginning in the mid-1890s Zionism, the movement to unite Jews of the Diaspora and settle them in Palestine, further bolstered immigration. In his book The Jewish State (1896), Hungarian-born Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl analyzed the causes of anti-Semitism and proposed as a solution the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1897 Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, representing Jewish communities and organizations throughout the world, in Basel, Switzerland. The congress formulated the Basel Program, which defined Zionism’s goal: “to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.” The congress also established the movement’s administrative body, the World Zionist Organization (WZO).

By 1914 the Jewish population of Palestine had grown to about 85,000, or about 12 percent of the total population. In 1917, during World War I, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which expressed Britain’s support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. By issuing the declaration Britain apparently hoped to generate support from both American and Russian Jews for the Allied war effort and to preempt efforts by its rival, Germany, to win Jewish support by issuing a similar declaration. Britain’s main long-term goal was to retain Palestine as a strategic territory after the war. Despite these underlying motives, the Zionist movement saw the declaration as an important achievement promoting Jewish settlement and development in Palestine. However, the British had already made two previous agreements to others in the region. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 Britain had agreed to split the Ottoman lands into British, French, and Russian areas of control upon defeating the Ottomans. The British had also made vague promises in 1915 and 1916 to support Arab independence in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire in return for Arab support of British forces against the Ottomans. Aided by the Arabs, the British captured Palestine from the Ottomans in 1917 and 1918.

The British Mandate Period

In July 1922 the League of Nations, an alliance of world powers formed in 1920 to preserve peace, issued a mandate granting control over Palestine to Britain, entrusting it to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home. Encouraged by British support of the Zionist cause, waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine between 1919 and 1939, each contributing to the developing Jewish community (Yishuv). About 35,000 came between 1919 and 1923, mainly from Russia. These pioneers laid the foundations of a comprehensive social and economic infrastructure, developed agriculture, established kibbutzim and moshavim, and provided labor for construction of housing and roads. Another 60,000 Jews, primarily from Poland, arrived between 1924 and 1932. This group developed and enriched urban life. These immigrants settled and established businesses in Tel Aviv (now part of Tel Aviv-Yafo), Haifa, and Jerusalem. As German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power, about 144,000 Jews, primarily from Germany, immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s to escape increasingly ruthless persecution. Increased momentum internationally of the Zionist movement, combined with economic recession in Europe, brought thousands more Jews from elsewhere in Western and Central Europe to Palestine in the late 1930s. Many were professionals and academics whose education, skills, and experience raised business standards, improved urban and rural life, and broadened the community’s cultural life.

The mandate authorities allowed Jewish and Arab communities to run their own internal affairs. The Jewish community elected a self-governing assembly, which in turn elected a council to implement its policies and programs. Financed by local resources and funds raised by worldwide Jewish organizations, these bodies developed and maintained a network of educational, religious, health, and social services for the Jewish population. Meanwhile the Jewish Agency, established by the mandate, handled matters of immigration, settlement, and economic development. The Arab Executive, a coalition of leading Muslim and Christian Arabs against Zionism, handled political, administrative, and economic affairs of the Arab community until 1934, when more activist groups emerged.

Through the 1920s and 1930s economic and cultural development of the country gained momentum. Yishuv leaders expanded agriculture, established factories, set up hydroelectric facilities on the Jordan River, built new roads throughout the country, and began tapping the mineral resources of the Dead Sea. The Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) advanced workers’ welfare and provided employment by setting up cooperative industrial enterprises and marketing services for the communal agricultural settlements. Art, music, theater, and dance developed gradually with the establishment of professional schools and studios. Galleries and halls were set up for exhibitions and performances. The Hebrew language became one of three official languages of the mandated area; it was used for documents, coins and stamps, and radio broadcasts. Publishing and Hebrew literary activity flourished.

During the mandate the British realized that their World War I promises to the Jews and Arabs had led to conflicting expectations of the two communities in Palestine: Each community felt entitled to the territory. Anti-Jewish attacks occurred in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the 1920s. Attempting to placate both communities, Britain issued periodic policy statements that reaffirmed support for a Jewish national home but also limited Jewish immigration and land purchases. But the Arabs, viewing any British support of Jewish statehood as a threat to Arab independence, continued demonstrations, protests, and attacks on the Jewish community. Arab resistance culminated in a full-scale revolt between 1936 and 1939. Britain issued a policy statement called a White Paper in 1939 imposing drastic restrictions on Jewish immigration and providing for the establishment within ten years of a single independent state with Jewish and Arab government participation in proportion to the population. Zionists, who saw the White Paper as a reversal of the Balfour Declaration and a denial of mandate obligations, emphatically rejected the document.

During World War II (1939-1945) the Nazi regime carried out a systemic plan to murder the European Jewish population. As German armies swept through Europe, Jews were herded into ghettos and eventually transported to concentration camps. Experts estimate that between 5.6 million and 5.9 million Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis (see Holocaust) by the end of the war. During the war the United States became a center of Zionist activity. A Zionist conference in New York in May 1942 resulted in the Biltmore Program, which rejected British restrictions, called for the fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration and the mandate, and urged the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish commonwealth. Nevertheless, British restrictions on Jewish immigration continued throughout the war and intensified in the years after. The Jewish community responded by instituting a network of illegal immigration activities. Between 1945 and 1948 about 85,000 Holocaust survivors were brought to Palestine by secret immigration routes.

Exhausted by the war, Britain sought to reassess its position and policy in Palestine and other locations in the mid-1940s. After efforts to negotiate with the Arabs and the Zionists, the British government referred the Palestine issue to the United Nations in February 1947. After extensive evaluation of the situation, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) proposed that the territory of the British mandate west of the Jordan River be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states with Jerusalem under international control. On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted a partition plan. Both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics voted in favor, while Britain abstained. Zionists reluctantly accepted the plan as the best resolution they could expect given political circumstances, but the Arab world denounced and rejected it. The Arabs felt that the UN had no right to make such a decision and that Arabs should not be made to pay for Europe’s crimes against the Jews. Fighting in Palestine escalated rapidly in the months after the plan was adopted.

Independence and War

On May 14, 1948, when the British mandate over Palestine expired, Jewish authorities declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The declaration recalled the religious and spiritual connections of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, without mention of specific boundaries; guaranteed “freedom of religion and conscience, of language, education, and culture”; provided a framework for a democratic Jewish state founded on liberty, justice, and peace; and called for peaceful relations with Arab neighbors. The state declared itself open for Jewish immigration. A provisional government was established, with Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion as prime minister and former Jewish Agency president Chaim Weizmann as president. The United States and the USSR, along with many other states, quickly recognized the new government.

The Arab League declared war on the new state, and Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq announced that their armies would enter the area to restore order. The newly established Israel Defense Forces (IDF), formed from prestate defense organizations, successfully repelled Arab forces. Fighting continued into early 1949, when Israel and each of the bordering states signed truce agreements that established the borders of the new state. Iraq, which shared no borders with Israel, did not sign any agreements.

The agreements left Israel in control of territory beyond what the partition plan allocated to it. Portions of territory that the UN plan had allocated to Palestinian Arabs came under Egyptian and Jordanian control (Egypt took over Gaza Strip, and Jordan gained control of the West Bank). Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. Several hundred thousand Arabs fled or were expelled from Israel. These refugees, totaling about 700,000 people, ended up in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and in neighboring Arab states. Of the original Arab population in Palestine only about 160,000 remained in the territory that was now Israel. Permanent peace negotiations were supposed to follow the armistice agreements but did not. The Arabs refused to recognize or negotiate with Israel. Decades after the war, IDF archives were opened to Israeli historians who discovered that there was a concerted military campaign to drive Palestinian Arabs from the new state of Israel so that it would have an overwhelming Jewish majority. The “compulsory transfer,” which was authorized by Israel’s first leader David Ben-Gurion, began before the outbreak of the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli War. See also Palestine, Modern.

The Postwar Period

With the end of hostilities, Israel soon moved to function as a regular state. In elections in early 1949, Israelis chose the first Knesset, which replaced the provisional government. The Zionist labor party Mapai emerged as the largest party in the Knesset, and Ben-Gurion, its leader, formed a coalition government with religious and centrist parties. Ben-Gurion and Weizmann retained their positions as prime minister and president. Israel became the 59th member of the UN in May 1949.

Israel affirmed the right of every Jew to live in Israel and promoted unrestricted immigration by drafting the Law of Return in 1950. In the first four months of independence, about 50,000 immigrants, mainly Holocaust survivors, arrived in Israel. By the end of 1951 about 687,000 had arrived—including more than 300,000 refugees from Arab lands such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya—doubling the Jewish population. Meanwhile a small number of Arabs returned to Israel to be reunited with family members who had chosen to remain in the country, bringing the total Arab population to about 167,000.

This mass immigration compounded the economic strain caused by the 1948-1949 war. The government was hard-pressed to feed, house, and find employment for the new immigrants. It implemented austerity programs and accepted substantial aid from abroad, particularly from the United States and Jewish communities worldwide. In 1952, after bitter political controversy, Israel negotiated agreements providing reparation payments from the West German government to the state and to individual victims as partial restitution for Nazi theft of Jewish property during World War II. The massive amount of aid made it possible for Israel to maintain a strong army while initiating economic and social development projects, including many new agricultural settlements for recent immigrants.

Israeli politics remained relatively stable through the 1950s. Ben-Gurion remained prime minister until 1953, when he temporarily retired from politics to work on a kibbutz in the Negev to serve as an example to Israeli youth. He returned to the post of prime minister in 1955. Weizmann died in 1952 and was replaced by Itzhak Ben-Zvi, a veteran Mapai leader, who served until his death in 1963.

The Suez Crisis

The lack of comprehensive peace settlements between Israel and the bordering states after the 1949 armistice agreements caused continual tensions in the region. The Arab states continued to regard the establishment of Israel as an injustice and sustained a political and economic boycott on the new state. Egypt refused Israel access to the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, and in 1951 Egypt blockaded the Strait of Tiran, Israel’s only direct access to the Red Sea. Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip began raiding Israeli communities near the borders. Israel held Jordan and Egypt responsible for these attacks and launched retaliatory raids. Further conflicts arose over control of demilitarized zones along the border and over Israeli use of water from the Jordan River—which borders Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank—for domestic development. Syria soon became involved as well.

In February 1955 Israel launched a raid against an Egyptian army base in the Gaza Strip. In response Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt organized further Palestinian guerrilla operations against Israel, and he intensified military buildup. In September Egypt concluded an arms deal with the Communist government of Czechoslovakia (acting for the USSR). Israel found these developments, along with Nasser’s emergence as the leader of a new Arab nationalist movement, threatening and began to prepare for war. In July 1956 Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, transferring ownership of the company that controlled its daily operations from British and French shareholders to the Egyptian government. Through secret negotiations with Britain and France, who sought to regain control of the canal and topple the Nasser regime, Israel planned a military offensive against Egypt.

In October 1956 Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, quickly capturing these areas and advancing toward the Suez Canal. As planned in the meetings with Israel, the British and the French issued an ultimatum demanding withdrawal of both Israeli and Egyptian forces from the canal. When Nasser refused, British and French forces bombed Egyptian bases. The United States and the USSR demanded an immediate cease-fire, and a UN resolution soon forced the British, French, and Israelis to withdraw from Egyptian territory. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) stationed troops on the frontier between Israel and Egypt, which helped ensure quiet along the border for the next decade. The Egyptian government reopened the canal, and Israel gained access to the Strait of Tiran. However, no comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace talks followed the Suez Crisis, and sporadic border incidents continued.

In a period of relative peace in the decade after the 1956 war, Israel’s economy developed rapidly. Industrial and agricultural development allowed the government to end its austerity measures, unemployment almost disappeared, and living standards gradually improved. Exports doubled and the gross domestic product increased dramatically. Israel now manufactured previously imported items such as paper, tires, radios, and refrigerators. The most rapid growth occurred in the manufacture of metals, machinery, chemicals, and electronics. Farms began to grow a larger variety of crops for the food-processing industry and fresh produce for export. To handle the increased volume of trade, a deep-water port was built on the Mediterranean coast at Ashdod.

Foreign relations expanded steadily. Israel developed ties with the United States, the British Commonwealth countries, most Western European nations, and nearly all the countries of Latin America and Africa. Hundreds of Israeli experts and specialists shared their knowledge and experience with people in other developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Israel strengthened its military and political cooperation with France, the United States agreed to supply Israel with arms in 1962, and West Germany continued to provide economic and military aid. In 1965 Israel exchanged ambassadors with West Germany, a move that had been delayed because of bitter memories of the Holocaust.

Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister in 1963 and was succeeded by his minister of finance, Levi Eshkol. Two years later Ben-Gurion formed a new opposition party, Rafi, to distance himself and his followers from the old guard of Mapai. Many prominent members of Mapai, including Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, joined the new party.

The Six-Day War

Unresolved issues from previous conflicts caused continual tension between Israel and the Arabs, which flared up yet again in the mid-1960s. Israeli and Syrian efforts to divert water from the Jordan River and disputes over the use of the demilitarized zone between the two nations led to numerous border incidents. In 1964 the Arab League created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to promote Palestinian nationalist activities and sought to coordinate Arab military efforts. In 1965 Palestinians began armed attacks against Israel; Israel responded with raids against Syria and Jordan. Border incidents became progressively more serious, inspiring nationalistic fervor throughout the Arab world. In May 1967 Nasser called for the removal of UN forces from the Suez Canal region. He also organized a military alliance with Syria, Jordan, and Iraq and moved Egyptian troops and equipment into the Sinai Peninsula. In addition, Nasser closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

After efforts at mediation by the UN and the Western powers failed, Israel launched a preemptive military strike against Egypt in early June. Jordan, Syria, and Iraq joined the fighting against Israel. The Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground within hours of the start of the Six-Day War, and Israeli forces quickly seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Israel also took East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Many Arabs fled these areas, which became known as the Occupied Territories. Israel placed the 1 million who remained under military administration. The USSR, which had supported the Arab alliance, and its allies immediately severed diplomatic relations with Israel.

In November 1967 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which called for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the recent conflict in return for Arab recognition of Israel’s independence, peace, and secure borders. Although neither side met these demands, the trade of “land for peace” has been the central concept of all subsequent peace efforts.

Although Israel’s victory inaugurated another period of economic growth and prosperity, it also politically polarized citizens into two groups: those who favored withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and peace with the Arabs, and those who sought Jewish settlement and annexation. Others favored positions in between, and most supported the annexation of East Jerusalem; the government formally united both parts of Jerusalem a few days after the war ended. Despite the merger of Mapai and other labor parties to form the Israel Labor Party in 1968, as well as the election of its secretary general, Golda Meir, as prime minister in 1969, the party’s dominance gradually broke down from failure to reach a consensus on the peace issue. The controversy also led in 1973 to the formation of Likud, a coalition of parties opposed to Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

In 1969 President Nasser of Egypt launched the War of Attrition against Israel along the Suez Canal in an effort to continue the conflict and wear down the enemy. The USSR provided Egypt with advanced military equipment, advisers, and pilots. Israel responded with air and artillery attacks against Egypt. The conflict was ended by a cease-fire sponsored by the United States in August 1970, but there was no substantial movement toward peace.

The War of 1973

Nasser died in 1970; soon after, newly elected Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat attempted to regain the Sinai Peninsula from Israel through diplomatic means. Negotiations to resolve the dispute failed, and on October 6, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian military forces launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights. Despite initial Egyptian and Syrian advances, Israel pushed Syria back beyond the 1967 cease-fire line and crossed the Suez Canal to take a portion of its west bank in Egypt. During the fighting, the USSR supplied arms to Egypt and Syria, and the United States provided arms to Israel. The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 (called the Yom Kippur War by Israel and the Ramadan War by Arabs) ended with a cease-fire in late October. Israel suffered heavy losses in the fighting despite its ultimate military successes. Parliamentary elections were postponed until December. The Labor Party remained in power, and Golda Meir retained her position as prime minister.

Traveling back and forth between the countries in a process known as shuttle diplomacy, U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger helped negotiate a military disengagement between Israeli and Egyptian forces in January 1974 and another between Israel and Syria in May. Kissinger arranged a second agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1975. A tense but relatively peaceful stalemate resulted. Israel agreed to withdraw from the canal zone, and Israel and Syria returned to the 1967 cease-fire boundaries.

The costly war caused increased unrest in Israel and growing criticism of the country’s leaders. The government appointed a commission of Supreme Court justices, the state comptroller, and two former military chiefs to investigate Israel’s lack of preparedness for the Arab strike. The commission’s report was highly critical of the military. Meir resigned following the report in the spring of 1974 and was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin, a member of her cabinet. Economic problems and turmoil within the Labor Party undermined Rabin’s tenure. The 1977 Knesset elections brought the Likud bloc to power and Menachem Begin to the office of prime minister, ending almost three decades of Labor Party dominance. Begin attracted strong support from Sephardic Jews who resented the treatment they had received under the Labor establishment.

Peace with Egypt

In 1977 Sadat announced his willingness to meet with Israel publicly and openly to discuss peace. In November he arrived in Israel to address the Knesset, calling on Begin to negotiate peace. After nearly a year of stalled negotiations, U.S. president Jimmy Carter brought the parties together at Camp David, Maryland, in September 1978 to break the stalemate. Carter, Begin, and Sadat concluded the Camp David Accords, agreements that provided the outline and basis for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and for a comprehensive Middle East peace focusing on the Palestinian issues and the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In March 1979 Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty calling for Israel’s gradual withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Egypt and Israel opened their borders, established direct communication links, opened embassies, and exchanged ambassadors in 1980. Israel completed its Sinai withdrawal in 1982. The treaty eliminated the threat of Israel’s primary Arab adversary with the largest military capacity. It also led to increased U.S. economic and military assistance to both Israel and Egypt. However, it failed to bring about a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace. On the contrary, the Arab League condemned Egypt and suspended its membership.

Despite peace with Egypt, hostilities continued between Israel and other Arab nations. In June 1981 Begin sent Israel’s air force to destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdād, claiming it was being used for development of nuclear weapons. Later that year Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights by extending Israeli civil law to the region; Syria refused to recognize Israel’s authority. Begin continued to push for Israeli settlement in all of the Occupied Territories, heightening tensions in those regions.

Invasion of Lebanon

The Lebanon border, which had been relatively quiet through the preceding Arab-Israeli wars, became the focus of Israeli security concerns in the early 1980s. Tensions between Lebanese Muslims and Christians had been heightened when the PLO, which had been expelled from Jordan in 1970, arrived in Lebanon. The situation was further complicated by the presence since 1976 of Syrian forces, who had originally intervened on behalf of Christians but soon allied with the PLO and other Muslims. PLO raids from Lebanon into Israel and the presence of Syrian missiles in Lebanon since early 1981 prompted Israel to launch a major military action, called “Operation Peace for Galilee,” into southern Lebanon in June 1982. The objectives of the raid were to ensure security for northern Israel and to destroy PLO infrastructure in Lebanon. Israel allied with Lebanese Christians, who also sought to expel the PLO. Under orders from Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli military pushed north to Beirut, defeating PLO and Syrian forces. United States envoy Philip Habib negotiated a cease-fire, and the PLO withdrew its forces from Lebanon in August 1982.

After the cease-fire, Bashir Gemayel, leader of a Maronite Christian party, was elected president of Lebanon but was assassinated on September 14. Subsequently, right-wing Lebanese Christian militiamen entered Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila near Beirut and massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the camps. The Israeli government established a commission of inquiry to investigate events pertaining to the massacre and to determine whether Israel held any responsibility for it. The commission’s report, issued in early 1983, found Israeli military leaders indirectly responsible for failing to anticipate or prevent the massacre. It recommended the resignation of Sharon and other military leaders. In May 1983 Israel and Lebanon signed an agreement confirming that “the states of war” between them had been terminated. However, under pressure from Syria, which held considerable political and military influence in Lebanon, Lebanese president Amin Gemayel nullified the agreement in March 1984. Israel withdrew most of its forces from Lebanon in 1985, leaving a small force in the south to maintain security along the border.

In the fall of 1983 Begin resigned from office. Affected by the death of his wife and the costs and continuing casualties to Israel of the war in Lebanon, Begin apparently believed that he could no longer perform his tasks as he felt he should. He was replaced by his foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir. In the 1984 Knesset elections no party achieved a clear victory. The major parties agreed to the formation of a national unity government made up of the two major political blocs, Likud and Labor. The arrangement provided for the rotation of the leaders—Shamir for Likud and Shimon Peres for Labor—in the positions of prime minister and foreign minister, which each would hold for 25 months, beginning with Peres as prime minister. The government withdrew Israel’s forces from Lebanon, leaving a small component in a security zone along the Lebanon-Israel border. It also acted to control inflation, which had risen to more than 400 percent per year, by imposing cuts in government expenditures and freezing wages and the exchange rate. It then worked to smooth the way for economic growth, entering a free trade agreement with the United States in 1985 that improved Israel’s international trade position.

The Intifada and the Persian Gulf War

The relative quiet in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ended in December 1987 when a series of widespread demonstrations, strikes, riots, and violence known collectively as the intifada broke out. Encompassing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the intifada began as a spontaneous expression of frustration and resentment at 20 years of Israeli rule and Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories. As the movement expanded and became more violent, Israel responded with increasingly harsh reprisals, which drew international criticism. Efforts by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to stop the riots and demonstrations failed, as did an attempt by U.S. secretary of state George Shultz to initiate peace negotiations. The United States excluded the PLO from negotiations as long as the PLO refused to accept Israel’s right to exist, and Palestinians would not participate in negotiations that excluded the PLO. The PLO’s claim to be the representative of the Palestinian people was further strengthened when Jordan ceded to the PLO its territorial claim to the West Bank in July 1988.

The 1988 Israeli elections were again inconclusive, and a new national unity government was installed, but this time Shamir was to remain as prime minister throughout the tenure of the government. Peres became finance minister while Rabin remained as defense minister. At this time PLO chairman Yasir Arafat acknowledged Israel’s right to exist by accepting UN Security Council Resolution 242 (originally adopted by the UN in 1967), and Arafat renounced terrorism. As a result the United States and the PLO began a formal dialogue. In the spring of 1989 the Israeli government proposed a comprehensive peace initiative, but efforts to work out the details soon failed. Negotiations suffered a further setback when the United States suspended its dialogue with the PLO following Arafat’s refusal to condemn a terrorist raid on a beach near Tel Aviv by a group affiliated with the PLO.

In March 1990 the Knesset terminated the Shamir government with a vote of no confidence, the first such successful vote in Israel’s history. After efforts by former Finance Minister Peres to form a government failed, Shamir succeeded in establishing a coalition of Likud and several right-wing and religious parties in June 1990. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent Persian Gulf War in 1991 further postponed efforts to seek an Arab-Israeli peace. During the war the United States and other members of an international coalition against Iraq excluded Israel from participation so as not to alienate the coalition’s Arab members. Soon after hostilities broke out in January 1991, Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia in an effort to split the coalition by diverting Arab attention from its anti-Iraqi stance to its opposition to Israel. The plan failed because Israel, at the request of the United States, did not retaliate.

Another area of international affairs also affected Israel dramatically during this period. Beginning in 1989, when the Soviets relaxed restrictions on Jewish emigration, a massive wave of immigrants arrived in Israel. Between 1989 and 1998 more than 700,000 Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union (and, after the breakup of the Soviet Union in late 1991, parts of the former Soviet Union). Successfully absorbing newcomers into all facets of the country’s life once again became one of the main challenges facing Israeli society. Many of these immigrants were highly educated and trained, enhancing Israel’s skill base.

The Peace Process

The end of the Cold War, a 45-year period of tense relations between the United States and the USSR, and the success of the Gulf War coalition suggested new possibilities in the quest for an Arab-Israeli peace. After months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. secretary of state James Baker, the United States and the USSR issued invitations to Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians to a peace conference in Madrid, Spain, in the fall of 1991. Israel continued to exclude the PLO, insisting on meeting instead with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

The Madrid conference convened in October 1991 and was followed by bilateral negotiations in Washington, D.C., several months later. Despite months of negotiations between Israel and the Lebanese, Syrian, and Jordanian-Palestinian delegations, no agreements emerged. Nevertheless, the conference was an important step on the road to peace because it involved direct, bilateral, public, and official peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors on the central political issues of the conflict.

In the midst of the Washington sessions, Labor emerged as the leading party in the Knesset elections in June 1992. As prime minister, Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin formed a coalition government of center and leftist parties. As the Washington sessions continued, Israel and the PLO began secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway, resulting in a breakthrough in the peace process. In 1993 the parties reached several important agreements and exchanged letters in which the PLO affirmed Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO renounced the use of terrorism and other forms of violence and committed itself to resolve the conflict with Israel through peaceful negotiations.

On September 13, 1993, Rabin and Arafat witnessed the signing of a historic accord between Israel and the PLO at the White House in Washington. This Declaration of Principles (DOP), outlined a proposal for limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank town of Jericho. It also stated that within five years the two sides were to reach a comprehensive peace settlement regarding all remaining issues in dispute, including the status of Jerusalem. The agreement also set the stage for the establishment of an interim body, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), to administer these regions. Despite the general euphoric mood created by the agreement, right-wing Israeli parties and dissident Palestinian groups expressed dissent, sometimes in the form of terrorist attacks.

Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Principles, Israel and Jordan entered into separate negotiations that led to the signing of a peace treaty in October 1994. The treaty addressed security, boundary demarcations and border crossings, control of water resources, police cooperation, environmental issues, and the establishment of normalized relations. Both parties agreed not to join, aid, or cooperate with any party intending to attack the other side and to prohibit military forces or equipment that could harm the other side from entering their territories. They pledged to cooperate in combating terrorism and to solve the problem of Palestinian refugees. They also agreed to cooperate on economic matters, including trade, development, and tourism. Finally, Israel recognized Jordan’s special role as guardian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, which angered Palestinians because it undermined their agreement with Israel to negotiate the status of Jerusalem at a later date.

Amid this initial progress toward peace, Israel was able to forge new diplomatic and trade relations with a large number of states in Africa and Asia, including China and India. Israel became more acceptable to the international community, and foreign trade grew dramatically, producing greater prosperity and an improved standard of living.

Meanwhile, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continued. After reaching further agreements with the PLO concerning transfer of much of the Gaza Strip and Jericho to PNA administration, Israel completed its withdrawal from these areas in May 1994. The PNA, which was headed by Arafat and staffed primarily by PLO members, assumed control of civil matters in the Gaza Strip and Jericho and deployed a Palestinian police force to maintain internal security. Israel retained control over Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip as well as over security of the region’s borders. An interim agreement in September 1995 focused on Israeli withdrawals from the remaining Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank and set the date of elections for the PNA’s president and its legislature, the Palestinian Legislative Council. The agreement also stated that after PNA elections, Israel would redeploy from Palestinian rural areas of the West Bank. Israel was to retain control over Jewish settlements and military installations until final status negotiations—including discussion of the status of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, and security arrangements—were completed.

Assassination of Rabin and Election of Netanyahu

In November 1995 Yigal Amir, an Israeli student who opposed the peace process, assassinated Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, claiming it was his religious duty to prevent the return of biblical lands to the Arabs. Shimon Peres, who as foreign minister under Rabin had been instrumental in peace negotiations, became Labor leader and prime minister. Peres proclaimed his desire to continue the peace process and carried out the terms of the interim agreement. Over the next several months Israel turned over civil administration of all other West Bank cities and most Palestinian towns and villages to the PNA, thus ending Israeli administration, established after the Six-Day War in 1967, over most of the Palestinian residents in the West Bank. In the cities, the PNA also assumed responsibility for internal security. The exception was Hebron, sacred to Jews as the site of King David’s capital prior to Jerusalem and the burial place of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Negotiations concerning Israel’s withdrawal from Hebron continued for another year. In Palestinian towns and villages, security came under joint control of a Palestinian police force and Israeli troops, with Israel’s authority predominant. As in the Gaza Strip, Israel retained control over Jewish settlements and over security of the West Bank’s borders, as well as over the travel routes between Palestinian settlements. In January 1996 Palestinians elected Yasir Arafat as president of the PNA and chose the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Despite Rabin’s assassination it appeared that the peace process was progressing as planned. However, terrorist attacks against Israel in early 1996, including suicide bombings by Palestinian militants, helped sway Israeli public opinion toward a position of fewer compromises. In May Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel’s first popularly elected prime minister and formed a coalition government determined to assure security for Israel. The government insisted that the PNA meet its obligations to prevent terrorism before Israel would make any more withdrawals. The peace process stalled despite efforts by the United States and others to restart it.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria, which had continued sporadically since the 1991 Madrid conference, were also affected by Likud’s return to power. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad believed progress had been made in the mid-1990s and wished to continue negotiations from where he and Israel’s former leaders had left off. However, Netanyahu and his coalition partners sought to reassess the situation and renegotiate the central issues, and the process stalled.

Although peace negotiations under the new Likud government had stalled, an agreement involving Hebron was completed and signed in January 1997. Israel withdrew from 80 percent of the city, maintaining control over Jewish settlements there. However, Israel decided the following month to proceed with a Jewish housing project in eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians viewed as a violation of preceding agreements. Negotiations again deadlocked. Terrorist attacks by Islamic groups, particularly by the Palestinian group Hamas, prompted Israel to demand more action by Palestinian leaders against terrorism. In September Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan’s capital. The action strained Israeli-Jordanian relations.

Terrorist attacks by Islamic groups from Lebanon on the security zone and into northern Israel also plagued Israel. In 1998 Israel offered to withdraw from its security zone in southern Lebanon, which Israel had maintained since 1985, in return for Lebanon’s guarantee to prevent attacks on northern Israel by terrorist groups. Lebanon refused the offer, calling for an unconditional withdrawal.

By mid-1998 Netanyahu faced increasing criticism in the Knesset from both the right and the left. In October he signed a U.S.-brokered accord providing for Israeli withdrawals from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank. In return, the Palestinian leadership promised to improve security to prevent attacks on Israelis by Palestinian terrorist groups, and to remove from their national charter the clauses calling for the destruction of Israel. Netanyahu’s action drew harsh criticism from members of Likud and others opposed to land-for-peace agreements.

In December 1998, after the first Israeli withdrawal, Netanyahu froze the accord, citing Palestinian violations and placing new conditions on further withdrawals. This angered Labor and other parties that sought to move forward with the peace process. Netanyahu also faced defections of key coalition partners. That month the Knesset voted to call for elections in May 1999, a year before Netanyahu’s term was due to expire. In these elections, 15 parties, including 6 new parties, won seats. Labor, which had formed a coalition known as One Israel, won the largest number of seats, and Likud came in second. However, both parties wound up with fewer seats than they had held before the elections. Shas, a religious party consisting primarily of Sephardic Jews, came in third, while Meretz, a strongly pro-peace leftist party, placed fourth. Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party and the One Israel bloc, defeated Netanyahu in elections for prime minister.

Barak’s Tenure

Barak took office in July 1999 and created a broad center-left coalition government. He pledged to take “bold steps” to help forge a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. He focused his attention on negotiations with the Palestinians, but he also expressed eagerness to reach a peace agreement with Syria. In addition, he promised to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within one year.

These steps led to increased optimism regarding the peace process. Barak transferred some West Bank territory to the authority of the PNA and also hinted that he might return virtually all of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace. Barak met with U.S. president Bill Clinton in July 1999 and set a 15-month deadline for a final peace settlement with the Palestinians. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began in November 1999 but soon bogged down over further transfers of land in the West Bank to Palestinian control.

In December 1999 Israel and Syria agreed to resume peace negotiations. Talks held in January 2000 were inconclusive, however, and a summit meeting between Assad and Clinton in April of that year failed to end the stalemate.

Exasperated by the failure of the Syrian talks and concurring with growing Israeli dismay with further casualties in southern Lebanon, Barak unilaterally ordered the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Lebanon to the countries’ international border as confirmed by the United Nations. The withdrawal was completed by June 2000.

In an effort to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward, the United States convened a summit at Camp David, Maryland, in the summer of 2000, at which Clinton, Barak, and Arafat focused on a comprehensive peace agreement. Despite intense efforts and some areas of accord, no ultimate agreement was reached. The failure of the summit led to the outbreak of a second intifada (known as the Al Aqsa intifada, after the holy Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) in September 2000. Violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis rocked Israel. The failure of the Camp David summit and the ensuing violence brought the peace process to a halt and eroded Barak’s political support. Barak suddenly resigned as prime minister in December 2000, and called for a new election for prime minister in February 2001.

Sharon Becomes Prime Minister

In the February 2001 election, voters were presented with a choice between Barak and Ariel Sharon of Likud for the post of prime minister. Leading up to the election, Sharon’s campaign stressed two factors: first, that the security of Israelis would be his administration’s paramount concern; and second, that the peace process initiated in Oslo in 1993 was “dead.” Sharon stated unequivocally that the violence must stop before the negotiations could continue, and that negotiations should then not be restricted by the agreements reached in Oslo. Sharon won the election by an overwhelming margin, reflecting the growing pessimism among Israelis regarding the peace process and Arafat’s power to curtail violence.

Sharon assembled a broad-based government that included people with differing views on the peace process. Several noted Labor figures were appointed to cabinet positions, including Shimon Peres as foreign minister. The government’s clear first objective was to stop the violence and restore security to the average Israeli. However, violence continued across the country.

Israeli-Palestinian relations were further soured in January 2002 when Israeli forces seized a large shipment of weaponry allegedly purchased by a high-ranking Palestinian official. The peace process seemed to be moving in reverse as Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, and Israeli military responses to these attacks, continued to grow in severity and lethality.

In response to mounting Israeli death tolls from Palestinian suicide bombings, in 2002 Israeli forces swept into the West Bank and occupied key urban centers. During the operation, which was vehemently denounced by Palestinian leaders, Israeli forces arrested hundreds of alleged terrorists and seized or destroyed large quantities of weapons. Violence escalated in late 2002. In October the Labor Party withdrew from the government when funds were allocated to Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the government’s 2003 budget.

After the 2001 election the Knesset voted to revert to Israel’s pre-1996 system of having the leader of the party with the most parliamentary seats named prime minister. In January 2003 parliamentary elections, Likud emerged as the dominant party, and Sharon retained the post of prime minister.

In the spring of 2003 U.S. president George W. Bush unveiled what was referred to as a “road map” toward the goal of independent Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side in peace and security. The PNA and, eventually, Israel accepted the road map, and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire. Summit meetings followed. However, violence surged in August with a bloody Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem followed by Israeli missile strikes against top Hamas leaders.

In late 2003 Sharon announced that Israel would take unilateral steps to ensure the country’s security in the perceived absence of a Palestinian partner for peace. These steps included a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of Gaza Strip settlements. Israel continued to build a fence, sometimes referred to as a security barrier, to separate Israel from the West Bank. Israel has been criticized by Palestinians and international organizations for building the barrier within West Bank territory in some stretches. Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel continued and Israeli forces also continued to target Hamas leadership. An Israeli missile strike in March 2004 killed Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, and another strike killed the new Hamas leader the following month.

In early 2005 the Labor Party formed a coalition with Likud after Likud lost support from coalition members who opposed the planned withdrawal from Gaza. Labor Party leader Peres assumed the position of deputy premier under Sharon.

Formation of Kadima and 2006 Elections

In August 2005 Israel evacuated about 9,000 settlers from all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and some others from 4 settlements in the northern West Bank. The evacuation met with opposition from a minority of Israelis. Some settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank had to be forcibly removed. Former prime minister Netanyahu opposed the pullout. He resigned from his position as finance minister and announced that he would challenge Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party. The Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza was largely completed by October. In November Peres lost the leadership of the Labor Party to Amir Peretz, the head of Israel’s trade union federation. Peretz pledged to withdraw Labor from the Likud coalition. The same month Sharon, frustrated by opposition from within Likud to the Gaza withdrawal, resigned from the party and formed a new centrist party, known as the Kadima party. Netanyahu became the leader of Likud, and Peres joined Kadima. The Knesset dissolved itself, paving the way for parliamentary elections in the spring of 2006.

In January 2006 Sharon suffered an extensive stroke. His powers as prime minister were transferred to Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert, who also became the leader of Kadima.

In the March 2006 parliamentary elections, the newly established Kadima party, under Olmert’s leadership, won the single largest number of seats, 29, but fell short of a majority in the Knesset, as have all parties throughout Israel’s history. Labor, led by the Moroccan-born Peretz, won 19 seats to come in second. Likud suffered a significant setback, securing only 12 seats. Israel’s right-wing parties did not do well enough to form an opposition coalition that could block Olmert’s plan for continued Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. In May Olmert formed a coalition with Labor, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, and the newly formed Pensioners Party to control 67 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. As part of the coalition agreement, Olmert became the prime minister, and Labor secured a number of Cabinet positions, including the defense ministry to be headed by Peretz.

Olmert reportedly regarded the elections as a referendum on his plans to establish permanent borders for Israel, either through negotiations with the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) or by withdrawing unilaterally from parts of the West Bank. Several factors complicated a withdrawal, however. The Labor Party favored a negotiated settlement, but Olmert refused to negotiate with Hamas, the militant Islamic group. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, calls for Israel’s replacement by an Islamic Palestinian state, and refuses to renounce terrorism. Although Mahmoud Abbas remained president of the PNA, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza in January 2006 and established the PNA’s Cabinet in March 2006.

Conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon

The lack of movement in the Arab-Israeli peace process and continued tensions along Israel’s borders with Lebanon and the Gaza Strip was replaced in the summer of 2006 by conflict. On June 26, Palestinians tunneled under the international border between Israel and Gaza, attacked an Israeli patrol, killed two soldiers, and kidnapped a third one. Israel responded by attacking a series of terrorist and infrastructure targets in the Gaza Strip, but the kidnapped Israeli soldier remained in captivity somewhere in Palestinian territory.

In July 2006 Hezbollah militia fighters crossed the internationally recognized border from Lebanon into Israel, attacked and killed eight Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others. Prime Minister Olmert called this an “act of war,” and Israeli forces launched an attack on targets in Lebanon. Israel bombed Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, destroying the organization’s headquarters. To prevent any supply of arms from Syria and Iran from reaching Hezbollah, Israel launched air attacks against Beirut’s airport and major land routes, while a naval blockade prevented shipping from entering or leaving the ports. Thousands of foreign nationals eventually were evacuated from the war zone.

Israeli attacked Hezbollah targets, including weapons storehouses and missile launching points, across the country. Meanwhile, Hezbollah responded with rocket attacks on northern Israeli cities, including attacks on Haifa. Israel called up reservists, and a military incursion led to the taking of villages and towns south of the Līţānī River, but Israeli forces met fierce resistance from Hezbollah fighters entrenched in underground tunnels and caves and armed with sophisticated antitank weapons that appeared to have been supplied by Iran and Syria.

The fighting lasted for 34 days until a UN Security Council resolution achieved a cease-fire on August 14, 2006, and an agreement was reached for a “robust” version of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to be installed in southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from reestablishing itself there and using the area to attack Israel.

Estimates of the number of Lebanese killed varied from about 850 to 1,200. The number of Israelis killed was put at 43 civilians and 117 soldiers between July 12 and August 14, with more than 4,000 wounded. UN officials estimated that a million Lebanese and 300,000 Israelis had been displaced by the fighting. More than a million Israelis were forced to live in shelters as some 4,000 rockets landed on Israel. Israel’s army completed its withdrawal from Lebanon on October 1, 2006.

As with previous wars that ended without overwhelming success for Israel, there developed a series of problems within Israel concerning performance and outcomes. When the war ended, the captured Israeli soldiers remained in their captors’ hands, and the image of Israel as an overwhelmingly successful military power seemed diminished. This led to protests and demonstrations, calls for commissions to evaluate the handling of the conflict, and for a reevaluation of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel’s political leadership. Some called for change in the government, while others demanded changes at the top of the IDF leadership.

Internationally, Israel came under criticism for its use of cluster bombs in populated areas of Lebanon. Although cluster bombs are not an outlawed weapon, critics of their use in populated areas note that children can easily mistake them for harmless objects. The United Nations emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, condemned Israel’s use of cluster bombs as “completely immoral.” In January 2007 Israeli deputy prime minister Shimon Peres said the use of cluster bombs was a regrettable mistake and apparently occurred without the prior knowledge of the IDF’s chief-of-staff.

Within Israel the Olmert government came under harsh criticism for its handling of the conflict and the related diplomacy. Many Israelis believed the government responded ineptly to the Hezbollah attacks by relying almost solely on air power at the beginning of the fighting, rather than launching a full-scale invasion into southern Lebanon. Critics of the government cited the lack of military experience of both Olmert and the newly appointed defense minister, Amir Peretz, the leader of the Labor Party. The Olmert government called for an investigation into the military response, but the inquiry itself, known as the Winograd Commission, came under challenge because it was not an official state inquiry. Discontent and concern lingered into the winter.

On October 30, 2006, Prime Minister Olmert won approval of Israel’s cabinet for the parliamentary faction Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) to join the government. Led by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel Our Home is a right-wing party that advocates annexation of parts of the West Bank and the transfer of some Arab towns in Israel to a future Palestinian state. By inviting Israel Our Home into the government, Olmert increased to 78 (out of 120) the number of legislators supporting the coalition, giving it a substantial majority. The move also suggested a more rightward and hardline shift for Israel in the wake of the Hamas and Hezbollah attacks. With Hezbollah being supported by Syria and Iran, many Israelis were reminded of statements by Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has organized conferences within Iran denying the existence of the Holocaust and opposing Zionism.

In January 2007 the head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, resigned just weeks before the Winograd Commission was due to issue an interim report. Halutz became the third Israeli general to resign in the wake of the war against Hezbollah. He had been criticized in particular for taking the time to sell stock during the first hours of the war. Peretz, too, took the brunt of much of the criticism and resigned as defense minister. He was replaced by former prime minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. When the Winograd Commission issued its final report in January 2008, it placed most of the blame for Israel’s losses in the fighting with Hezbollah on the IDF and largely exonerated Olmert.

Clashes with Hamas over Gaza

Meanwhile, Israel continued to struggle with Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad Party, which continued to launch rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on the Israeli southern border town of Sederot. Hamas had won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006 and ever since Israel had attempted to undercut its growing popularity among Palestinians, especially in Gaza. Soon after the elections, Israel withheld tax revenues that it continued to collect for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), apparently in the hope of undermining Hamas. Instead, Hamas appeared to secure its hold on Gaza, even staging a coup and ousting Fatah from Gaza in June 2007.

An informal cease-fire that had existed between Hamas and Israel broke down. Israel resumed its policy of targeted assassinations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants after Hamas reportedly failed to control rocket attacks by Islamic Jihad on southern Israel and then began to initiate its own attacks. The relatively small and inaccurate Qassam rockets were responsible for only two Israeli deaths in 2007 but they made life miserable for the residents of Sederot who bore the brunt of thousands of rocket attacks.

In September 2007 Israel declared Gaza a “hostile territory.” Israel began to impose sanctions such as cutting off fuel and electricity and making it more difficult for Gazans to cross the borders into Israel or Egypt. In June 2008, as a result of talks brokered in Egypt, Hamas announced another informal cease-fire. Israeli officials said that they would hold Hamas responsible for any attacks by Islamic Jihad or the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Fatah.

Q. Olmert’s Resignation

Despite the exoneration by the Winograd Commission, Olmert continued to remain an unpopular figure among most Israelis. His approval ratings declined to the single digits after he came under investigation on charges that he accepted bribes from an American businessman and that he had duplicated expense account forms while he was mayor of Jerusalem, allegedly using the extra money to pay for private trips and vacations. In July 2008 Olmert announced that he would not run in the Kadima Party primaries in September 2008 and would resign as prime minister once a newly elected Kadima leader formed a coalition government. Political observers said the announcement signaled the end of Olmert’s political career. Even if Kadima was unable to govern and new elections had to be called, Olmert said he would stay on only as a caretaker prime minister until the elections could be held. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni succeeded Olmert as the leader of Kadima.

Invasion of Gaza

With Israel only months away from parliamentary elections in February 2009, it launched a massive assault on the Gaza Strip, beginning with air strikes in late December 2008 and a ground attack that began on January 3, 2009. The Israeli media reported that the attack, known as Operation Cast Lead, was in the planning stages as far back as June 2008 at the same time Israel was negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas, the militant Islamic organization that governed Gaza. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak reportedly expected that during the cease-fire Hamas would use the occasion to rearm with arms smuggled through tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. Israel would use the period to train for a ground attack, using lessons learned from the abortive invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

The stated purpose of the incursion was to destroy the infrastructure that enabled Hamas to launch rocket attacks on southern Israel and assure that the attacks were permanently ended. However, Israeli media reports also speculated that there were divisions within the Israeli leadership over whether to simply end the attacks or to also crush Hamas and cripple its ability to govern.

The attacks began a week after Hamas announced on December 19, 2008, that it would not renew the six-month cease-fire understanding that had been brokered in Egypt through indirect talks. Hamas was angered by an Israeli military attack on Gaza on November 4, 2008, that resulted in the deaths of six Hamas militants. Israel charged that it had discovered a tunnel being built to carry out attacks and kidnappings on IDF forces. Hamas countered that Israel had consistently violated the truce with military attacks and had failed to carry out its obligations under the cease-fire to permit more truck deliveries of vital goods for the struggling Gazan economy.

Many international observers believed that the attack was timed while U.S. president George W. Bush was still in office to ensure that there was not a hostile U.S. reaction. Israeli leaders rejected the charge that the attack was timed for the domestic Israeli elections.

Although Israel’s invasion was popular with most of the electorate, it met with some international condemnation and domestic dissent after casualties among Palestinian civilians began to rise. By early January about 600 Palestinians had been killed, compared with 11 Israelis. However, millions of Israelis in southern towns had to seek shelter from rocket attacks. Protests were held in a number of European cities accusing Israel of engaging in collective punishment and using disproportionate force.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy met with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to explore the possibility of a truce, but the Bush administration rejected a cease-fire resolution at the UN Security Council, saying it was premature because Hamas retained its ability to launch rockets. Moderate Arab countries with largely Sunni Muslim populations, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which oppose Hamas and fear its ties with Shia Muslims in Iran, failed to protest vigorously. The only country to take any concrete action was Venezuela, headed by Hugo Chávez, which expelled Israel’s ambassador.

Domestically, there were street protests in Tel Aviv and elsewhere organized by relatively small, left-wing groups that united both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Israel’s largest peace group, Peace Now, did not formally participate in the early protests, but by January 7, 2009, it was calling for a cease-fire. The IDF closed off Gaza to Western media outlets. However, images of the carnage were still broadcast by Arab television.

On January 18 Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire, and by January 20 it had withdrawn its forces. Israel said eight Israeli soldiers were killed and five Israeli civilians died from rockets fired from Gaza during the offensive. Israel disputed the death toll reported by Palestinian health officials in Gaza, who said more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, more than half of them civilians. Israeli officials claimed the death toll was much lower and argued that it tried to avoid civilian casualties but was frustrated by Hamas’s stationing of military forces in civilian areas.

Observers from human rights organizations disputed this claim, reporting that Israeli air strikes struck government buildings, police stations, a police cadet’s graduation ceremony, jails, mosques, hospitals, universities, and even ambulances. Nine Israeli human rights organizations called for an investigation into whether Israel committed war crimes. Israel also faced charges from Human Rights Watch that its use of white phosphorus, an incendiary smokescreen, violated the customary laws of warfare because it was used in densely populated areas, causing fires and severe burns. The United Nations demanded an investigation of an Israeli artillery strike that struck a UN school, killing a number of children, saying that it had provided Israel with the coordinates for the location of its facilities. The UN’s relief agency headquarters in Gaza City was also damaged by an Israeli air strike. In response to charges of human rights violations, the Israeli government announced that it would defend any Israeli soldiers accused of war crimes.

By early April 2009 it remained to be seen whether the cease-fire would last and whether Israel had achieved its objectives with the offensive. Islamic militants within Gaza retained the ability to fire rockets into Israel, and Hamas continued to hold an Israeli soldier captured in 2006. Hamas declared its own unilateral cease-fire but sporadic attacks still occurred. Israeli officials promised severe reprisals if the rocket attacks continued.

One casualty of the Gaza offensive, however, may have been Israel’s relations with moderate Muslim allies, particularly Turkey. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, strongly criticized the Gaza offensive.

Parliamentary Elections of 2009

In the February 2009 parliamentary elections, Israel’s right-wing parties won a resounding victory, capturing 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, compared with 55 for moderate and left-wing parties. Israel’s president Shimon Peres invited Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition government after concluding that only Likud could fashion a majority in the parliament. Likud won 27 seats to Kadima’s 28 seats but Peres surmised that Kadima was unlikely to be able to form a majority, considering the poor performance of other center-left and centrist parties. The Labor Party, for example, continued to lose popularity, declining from 19 to 13 seats.

Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Is Our Home), led by the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, increased its representation from 11 to 15 seats. The Israeli left considers Lieberman a racist because he has called for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs to a future Palestinian state. Prior to the elections Lieberman helped engineer a move in the Knesset to ban Arab political parties after thousands of Israeli Arabs protested against the Gaza invasion. The ban was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, but during the campaign Lieberman argued that Israeli Arabs should be required to sign a loyalty oath or face deportation.

Netanyahu formed a coalition government with Labor and Yisrael Beytenu and some smaller right-wing and religious parties, giving it a majority of 69 seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu retained Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, as his defense minister and named Lieberman foreign minister.

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