Israel: Overview

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Officially, the State of Israel, a democratic republic established by proclamation 15 May 1948.

Israel (in Hebrew, Medinat Yisrael) is a small state in both populationestimated at 6.7 million in September 2003and sizeencompassing some 8,019 square miles. It is located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered on the north by Lebanon and on the east by Syria and Jordan. In the south, from a short coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's border runs northwestward to the Mediterranean along the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. The West Bank and Gaza Strip territories have been under Israel's administration since the 1967 ArabIsrael

War. In 1981 Israel extended its law and jurisdiction to the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in 1967.

Israel extends 260 miles south from the northern border with Lebanon and Syria to Elat on the Gulf of Aqaba, and east from the Mediterranean for 60 miles to the Rift Valley, through which the Jordan River flows. The southern half of Israel, mostly desert, is known as the Negevan area of arid flat-lands and mountains. North of the Negev is a highland region with a series of mountain ranges that run from the Sea of Galilee in the north to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) in the south, divided by the Plain of Esdraelon (some 300 feet below sea level). A narrow but fertile coastal plain 3 to 9 miles wide along the Mediterranean shore is where most Israelis live and most of the industry and agriculture are located, including the citrus crop.

About 90 percent of Israel's people live in urban areas; the three largest cities are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Jerusalem is Israel's capital and largest city; it is the spiritual center of Judaism (the Jewish religion) and also a holy city for Christianity and Islam. West Jerusalem, the newer part of the city, is inhabited mainly by Jews. East Jerusalemcaptured by Israel from Jordan in 1967is inhabited mainly by Arabs.

Tel Aviv serves as the country's commercial, financial, and industrial center, and houses some government agencies. Haifa, on the Mediterranean, is a major port city, the administrative and industrial center of northern Israel. Beersheba is considered the capital of the Negev region. In the 1950s Israel's government began creating "development towns," to attract industry to lightly populated areas and to provide homes for new immigrants.

Israel has hot dry summers and cool mild winters, although the climate varies from region to region, partly because of elevation. In August, the
hottest month, the temperatures may reach 98°F in the hilly regions and as high as 120°F near the Dead Sea. In January, the coldest month, temperatures average 48°F in Jerusalem and 57°F in Tel Aviv. Israel has almost continuous sunshine from May through mid-October. The khamsin, a hot dry dusty wind, sometimes blows in from deserts in the east. Almost all the rainfall occurs between November and March, and great regional variations exist. In the driest area, the southern Negev, the average yearly rainfall is only 1 inch. In the wettest area, the hilly parts of upper Galilee, average annual rainfall is 42 inches. Snow also falls sometimes in the hills.

Israel has six administrative districtsCentral, Haifa, Jerusalem, Northern, Southern, and Tel Aviv. Elected councils are the units of local government, responsible for such services as education, water, and road maintenance.


At its independence in 1948 Israel was a poor country with only a little agricultural or industrial production. The economy has grown substantially, and today Israel enjoys a relatively high standard of living, despite limited water and mineral resources. Human resources (large numbers of educated immigrants) plus financial assistance from Western nations (especially the United States and Germany) contribute to Israel's economic well-being. The nation's main trading partners are the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy.

Israel is poor in energy sources, having no coal deposits or hydroelectric power resources and only small amounts of crude oil and natural gas. In 2004 Israel had a technologically advanced market economy with substantial government participation. It imports crude oil, raw materials, and
military equipment. It has intensively developed its agricultural and industrial sectors. Israel imports significant quantities of grain but is largely self-sufficient in other agricultural products. Cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, and agricultural products (fruit and vegetables) are the leading exports. The influx of Jewish immigrants from the former U.S.S.R. during the period 1989 to 1999, coupled with the opening of new markets at the end of the Cold War, energized Israel's economy, which grew rapidly in the early 1990s; growth slowed in 1996 when Israel imposed tighter fiscal and monetary policies and the immigration bonus declined. Growth was 7.2 percent in 2000, but the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada, difficulties in the high-technology, construction, and tourist sectors, and fiscal austerity in the face of growing inflation, led to small declines in GDP in 2001 and 2002. These rebounded by the end of 2003.


When Israel was established in 1948 it had about 800,000 people. In 2003 Israel's population numbered about 6.7 million; about 81 percent are Jews. Between 1948 and the 1990s more than 2 million Jews migrated to Israel, many to escape persecution in their home countries. In 1950 and 1952 respectively, the Knesset (parliament) passed the Law of Return and the Nationality Law, which together grant the right to every Jew to immigrate to the country and, with minor exceptions, to be granted automatic citizenship. Israel's Jewish population shares a common spiritual heritage but comes from diverse ethnic backgroundseach group has its own cultural, political, and recent historical roots. The two main groups are the Ashkenazimwho came from the countries of Central and Eastern Europeand the Mizrahim and Sephardimwho came from the countries of the Middle East and around the Mediterranean. At the time of independence, most of Israel's Jews were Ashkenazim; as a result, the political, educational, and economic systems are primarily Western in orientation. The massive migration of Jews from the former U.S.S.R., which began in the glasnost era of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (late 1980s), brought more than 185,000 in 1990 and hundreds of thousands in subsequent years, and Soviet Jews became the largest ethnic group in Israel in the twenty-first century.

Arabs make up nearly all the remaining 19 percent of Israel's population. Most are Palestinians whose families remained after the independence of Israel and the 1948 ArabIsrael War. Arab and Jewish Israelis generally have limited contact, live in separate areas, attend separate schools, speak different languages, and follow different cultural traditions.

Israel has two official languagesHebrew and Arabic. Many Israelis also speak English or Russian, and many Ashkenazic Jews speak Yiddish, a Germanic language spoken since the Middle Ages by Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. Because of their diverse diaspora origins, Israelis also speak a great many other languages, reflecting their diverse histories.


About 20 percent of Israeli Jews observe the religious principles of Judaism and are classified as Orthodox; an additional 50 percent observe some of the principles some of the time, and the rest (30%) tend to be secular. Orthodox Israelis hold that Jewish religious values should play an important role in the shaping of government policy, but secular Israeli Jews seek to limit the role of religion in the state.

Of Israel's non-Jewish population, about 73 percent are Muslims, the largest group of which are Sunni. Another 11 percent of the non-Jews are Christians, mostly Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Of the remaining 16 percent, the majority are Druze, but there are also some Bahaʾi and other small religious communities. All faiths are guaranteed religious freedom by law.


Education has a high priority in Israel. One of the first laws passed there established free education and
required school attendance for all children between the ages of five and fourteen. Attendance is now required to age sixteen. Adult literacy is estimated to be in excess of 97 percent. The Jewish school system instructs in Hebrew, and the Arab/Druze school system in Arabic; both are government-funded systems.

Israel has a number of internationally recognized institutions of higher educationthe Technion, Haifa University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, Bar-Ilan University, and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The Arts

With a population drawn from more than one hundred countries, Israel is rich in cultural diversity and artistic creativity. In music, dance, theater, films, literature, painting, and sculpture, many artists work within the traditions of their own ethnic groups. Others have blended various cultural forms

israel's population, in thousands, by religion
1until 1994, included those not classified by religion by ministry of interior.
2does not include lebanese not classified by religion by ministry of interior.
source: adapted from statistical abstract of israel 53, jerusalem: central bureau of statistics, 2002, table 2.1.
table by ggs information services, the gale group.

to create a uniquely Israeli tradition. The arts not only reflect Israel's immigrant diversity, they also draw upon Jewish history and religion and address the social and political problems of modern Israel. The arts are actively encouraged and supported by the government.

Publishing is a major industrythe number of books published per person in Israel is among the highest in the world. Most Israeli authors write in Hebrew, and some have achieved international fame; the novelist and short-story writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon shared the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature. Other renowned authors include Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Saul Tchernichovsky, Amos Oz, and Avraham B. Yehoshua. Israel's newspapers are published daily in Hebrew, with others available in Arabic, Russian, English, French, Polish, Yiddish, Hungarian, and German.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs throughout the country and on frequent international tours, as does the Jerusalem Symphony, the orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Israeli and international artists tour as well, and almost every municipality and small agricultural settlement has a chamber orchestra or jazz ensemble. Folk music and folk dancing, drawing from the cultural heritage of the many immigrant groups, are very popular, as is the theater. Among the museums are the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and an extensive collection of Jewish religious and folk art; and the Museum of the Diaspora, which is located on the campus of Tel Aviv University. Archaeology is an important pursuit, and archaeological remains are on display throughout the country.


Israel has no written constitution; instead, it follows "basic laws" passed by the Knesset (parliament) that deal with subjects such as the president, the Knesset, the judiciary, and other matters generally found in a written constitution. Legislative powers are vested in this unicameral body of 120 members, elected for a term not to exceed four years, in a national, general, equal, secret, direct, and proportional election. The Knesset passes legislation, participates in the formation of national policy, and approves budgets and taxes. All Israeli citizens eighteen years or older may vote. Voters do not cast ballots for individual candidates in Knesset elections, but instead vote for a party list, which includes all the candidates of the political party. The list may range from a single candidate to a full slate of 120 names. A party's seats in parliament are approximately proportional to the share of the votes it receives in the national election.

The prime ministerthe head of governmentis normally the leader of the party that controls the most seats in the Knesset and must maintain the support of a majority of the Knesset to stay in office. He or she selects, forms, and heads the cabinet, which is Israel's senior policymaking body, composed of the heads of each government ministry as well as other ministers; appointments to the cabinet must be approved by the Knesset. The presidentthe head of stateis elected by the Knesset to a seven-year term. The powers and functions are primarily formal and ceremonial; actual political power is limited. The president's most important task is selecting a member of the Knesset to form a government, although political composition of the Knesset has, so far, essentially determined this selection.

Since 1948, Israel's governments have been coalitions of several political partiesthe result of several factors: the intensity with which political views are held; the proportional representation of the voting system; and the multiplicity of parties. These factors have made it all but impossible for a party to win an absolute majority of seats. Despite the constant need for coalition governments, they have proven remarkably stable. Political life in Israel was dominated during the period of the British Mandate by a small and relatively cohesive elite that held positions in government and other major institutions. The strength of the Israel Labor Party until 1977 helped to stabilize the political situation. Between 1977 and 1983 Prime Minister Menachem Begin's political skills had the same effect. Rigorous party discipline exists in the Knesset.

The judiciary comprises both secular and religious court systems.

Political History

The independence of the State of Israel in 1948 was preceded by more than a half century of efforts by Zionist leaders to establish a sovereign state as a homeland for dispersed Jews. The desire of Jews to return to their biblical home was voiced continuously and repeatedly after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 c.e. and dispersed the population of Roman Palestine. Attachment to the land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) became a recurring theme in Jewish scripture and literature. Despite the ancient connection, it was not until the founding of the World Zionist Organization by Theodor Herzl near the end of the nineteenth century that practical steps were taken toward securing international sanction for large-scale Jewish resettlement in Palestine. Small numbers of Jews had remained in the area or had returned to it throughout the centuries, mostly (but not only) Orthodox scribes and scholars residing mainly in the four holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. Modern Zionism was given added weight by the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which declared the British government's support for the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, and Britain was granted a League of Nations mandate for Palestine after World War I that lasted until after World War II.

In November 1947 international support for establishing a Jewish state led to the adoption of the United Nations (UN) partition plan, which called for dividing mandated Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state and for establishing Jerusalem as an international city under UN administration. Violence between Palestinian Arabs and Jews erupted almost immediately. On 15 May 1948 the State of Israel proclaimed its independence. Armies from neighboring Arab states entered the former Mandate lands to fight Israel in the ArabIsrael War of 1948. In 1949 four armistice agreements were negotiated and signed between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. No peace treaties were signed, however, and the new Israeli state maintained a shaky UN-supervised armistice with its Arab neighbors.

After Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and formed a unified military command with Syria, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula in October 1956, in concert with French and British operations against Egyptian forces concentrated near the canal. At the conclusion of the 1956 ArabIsrael War Israel's forces withdrew (March 1957) after the United Nations established an Emergency Force (UNEF) and stationed it along the Egyptian side of the 1949 armistice line and on the Strait of Tiran to ensure passage of Israel-bound ships. In 1966 and 1967 terrorist incidents and retaliatory acts across the armistice demarcation lines increased. In May 1967, after tension had developed between Syria and Israel, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser moved armaments and troops into the Sinai and ordered withdrawal of UNEF troops from the armistice line and from Sharm al-Shaykh at the Strait of Tiran. Nasser then closed the strait to Israel's ships, blockading the Israeli port of Elat at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. On 30 May Jordan and Egypt signed a mutual-defense treaty.

In response to these and related events, Israel's forces attacked Egypt on 5 June 1967. Subsequently, Jordan and Syria joined in the hostilities of the 1967 ArabIsrael War. After six days of fighting, Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. At Khartoum on 1 September an Arab summit meeting resolved to have "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it." On 22 November 1967 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which called for the establishment of a just and lasting peace; Israel's withdrawal from territories occupied in June 1967; the end of all states of belligerency; respect for the sovereignty of all states in the area; and the right to live in peace within secure recognized boundaries. Swedish ambassador Gunnar Jarring was given the task of implementing the resolution. In the spring of 1969 Nasser initiated the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel along the Suez Canal. The United States helped to end these hostilities and achieved a cease-fire in August 1970, but subsequent efforts to negotiate an interim agreement to open the Suez Canal, achieve disengagement of forces, and move toward peace were unsuccessful.

On 6 October 1973, Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the Jewish year), Syrian and Egyptian forces attacked Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and in the Golan. Initially, Syria and Egypt made significant advances, but Israel recovered on both fronts, pushing the Syrians back beyond the 1967 cease-fire lines and crossing the Suez Canal to take a position on its west bank. This war was followed by renewed and intensive efforts toward peace. The United States and the Soviet Union helped to achieve a cease-fire based on Security Council Resolution 338, which reaffirmed UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the framework for peace and for the first time called for negotiations between the parties to establish "a just and durable peace in the Middle East."

The United States actively helped Israel and Egypt to reach agreement on cease-fire stabilization and military disengagement. On 5 March 1974 Israel's forces withdrew from the Suez Canal, and Egypt assumed control. Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement on 31 May 1974, and the United Nations Disengagement and Observer Force (UNDOF) was established as a peacekeeping force in the Golan. Further U.S. efforts resulted in an interim agreement between Egypt and Israel in September 1975, which provided for another withdrawal by Israel from the Sinai, a limitation of Egypt's forces therein, and stations staffed by U.S. civilians in a UN-maintained buffer zone between Egypt's and Israel's forces.

In November 1977 Egypt's President Anwar alSadat launched an initiative for peace. Sadat recognized Israel's right to exist and established the basis for direct negotiations between Egypt and Israel. This led to meetings at the presidential retreat of Camp David, Maryland, when U.S. president Jimmy Carter helped to negotiate a framework for peace between Israel and Egypt and for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East (known as the Camp David Accords)with broad principles to guide negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. An EgyptIsrael peace treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., on 26 March 1979 by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Sadat, with President Carter signing as witness. This was the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, and it effectively ended the conflict between them. They agreed that negotiations on a transitional regime of autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza would begin one month after ratification. Under the peace treaty, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in April 1982. In 1989 the governments of Israel and Egypt concluded an agreement that resolved the status of Taba, a disputed resort area in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Since the 1948 war Israel's border with Lebanon had been quiet compared to its borders with other neighbors. After the Jordanian Civil War (19701971), many Palestinians were expelled from Jordan and most eventually went to southern Lebanon, so hostilities against Israel's northern border increased. In March 1978, after a series of terrorist attacks on Israel originating in Lebanon, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) were sent into Lebanon. Israel withdrew its troops after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 425, which called for the creation of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), a peacekeeping force.

In July 1981, after additional fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in Lebanon, U.S. president Ronald Reagan's special envoy, Philip Charles Habib, helped to secure a cease-fire. In June 1982, in response to attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets and the attempted assassination of Israel's ambassador in London, Israel invaded Lebanon with the objective of removing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)'s military and terrorist threat to Israel. In August 1982, after the siege of Beirut and an evacuation plan mediated by several states, the PLO withdrew its headquarters and some forces from Lebanon, relocating in Tunisia. With U.S. assistance in May 1983, Israel and Lebanon reached an accord to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon; however, in March 1984, Lebanon, under pressure from Syria, abrogated the agreement. In June 1985 Israel withdrew most of its troops from Lebanon. A small residual Israeli force and an Israeli-supported Lebanese militia remained in southern Lebanon in a "security zone," regarded by Israel as a necessary buffer against attacks on its northern territory.

Until the election of May 1977, Israel had been governed by a coalition led by the Labor alignment or its constituent parties. After the 1977 election, the Likud (Union) bloc came to power, forming a coalition with Menachem Begin as prime minister. Likud retained power in the election in June 1981, and Begin remained prime minister. In 1983 Begin resigned and was succeeded by his foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir. New elections were held in 1984. The vote was split among numerous parties, and neither Labor nor Likud was able to attract enough small-party support to form a coalition. They agreed to establish a broadly based government of national unity. The agreement provided for the rotation of the office of prime minister and the combined office of deputy prime minister and foreign minister midway through the government's fifty-month term. During the first twenty-five months of the unity government's rule, Labor's Shimon Peres served as prime minister, while Likud's Shamir held the posts of deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Peres and Shamir exchanged positions in October 1986.

The November 1988 elections resulted in a similar coalition government. Likud and Labor formed another national unity government in January 1989, without providing for rotation. Again Shamir became prime minister and Peres deputy prime minister and finance minister. That government fell in March 1990 after a no-confidence vote precipitated by disagreement over the government's response to a U.S. peace initiative. Labor Party leader Peres was unable to attract sufficient support to form a government, and Shamir then formed a Likud-led coalition government, which included members from religious and right-wing parties; it took office in June 1990. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and the Gulf War of 1991, a new peace initiative by the United States led to a major ArabIsrael peace conference, the Madrid Conference (1991).

Soon after Madrid, right-wing parties resigned from Shamir's government over the issue of Palestinian self-rule. Yitzhak Rabin's victory as the new head of the Labor Party in the 1992 Knesset elections brought a clear shift from right to left-of-center, and toward a more pragmatic approach on ArabIsraeli issues. The new government began to alter the nature and direction of Israeli policy, seeking to restore the concepts of Labor Zionism to the center of Israeli politics.

The Madrid Peace Conference was followed by a series of multilateral discussions focusing on functional issues such as refugees, arms control and regional security, water, economic development, and the environment, as well as bilateral negotiations that convened in Washington, D.C. In spring and summer 1993, even as official negotiations continued with little progress in Washington, Israeli and PLO representatives conducted secret negotiations in Norway that led to an exchange of letters and the signing in September 1993 of an historic Declaration of Principles (DOP).

The exchange of letters and DOP, also known as the Oslo Accord, contained the PLO's recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace and security and Israel's recognition of 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. The accord provided for Palestinian autonomy, starting in Jericho (a city of the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip, and for continued negotiations between the two sides to establish the basis for the future relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.

The lengthy and at times acrimonious negotiations known as "the Middle East peace process" saw Israel and the PLO attempting to negotiate interim agreements for a phased Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers and the creation of a Palestine (National) Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Delays, outbreaks of Palestinian and Israeli violent opposition, and recriminations about the process soon began to wear down the initial euphoria of the 1993 signing ceremony. The most serious incidents of violence included the massacre of Muslim worshipers in Hebron in February 1994 by Baruch Goldstein; the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv in November 1995; and suicide bombings of Israeli buses and terrorist attacks on shopping areas in spring 1996 by members of the Islamic resistance movement HAMAS.

The signing of the DOP allowed Israel and Jordan to publicly continue their decades-long secret negotiations, which culminated in the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries on 26 October 1994. This treaty led to a relatively "warm peace" (compared to its IsraeliEgyptian predecessor) that included a wide range of relationships in numerous sectors.

The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by Yigal Amir was unexpected and unprecedented, and reflected sharp differences within the Israeli polity on the peace process. Shimon Peres was chosen to lead the government, and he attempted to pursue the IsraeliSyria peace track, but was stymied by the lack of Syrian response and by suicide bombings and Katyusha rocket attacks into northern Israel from southern Lebanon. Peres responded with Operation Grapes of Wrath, directed against Hizbullah bases in Lebanon.

In May 1996 Israelis participated in their first-ever election under a new electoral law requiring them to cast two ballotsone for the Knesset and the other for prime minister. The elections saw the victory of Likud's Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu over Labor's Peres by a margin of less than 1 percent of the votes cast. Netanyahu's victory was attributed to support from the political right and the religious parties, to the failure of the sympathy vote for Rabin to materialize, to Peres's diminished stature among Jewish voters because of his ineffective reactions to terrorism, and to the Arab community's failure to provide Peres with strong support partly because of extensive IDF military operations against the PLO in Lebanon. The election permitted Netanyahu to create a right-of-center coalition government. Netanyahu's tenure was marked by slow progress on the peace process, highlighted by the U.S.-brokered signing of a Hebron redeployment agreement in January 1997 and the Wye Plantation Accord of 1998.

In the May 1999 elections Israelis were again offered two ballots. This time Labor's new leader, Ehud Barak, running as head of the "One Israel" ticket, defeated Netanyahu by a wide margin (56% to 44%) and then formed a broadly based coalition government. Barak was widely seen in Israel and abroad as a true successor to Rabinan individual with strong security credentials who sought a compromise agreement with the Palestinians. Hope was generated for a reinvigorated peace process, especially because of the substantial involvement of U.S. president Bill Clinton. Barak also moved ahead on other issues. In keeping with a campaign pledge he ordered a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in March 2000. The withdrawal was carried out swiftly, ending Israel's eighteen-year presence in Lebanon and resulting in the United Nations declaring Israel to be in full compliance with UNSC Resolution 425. The withdrawal also seemed to offer a prospect for further negotiations with Syria on outstanding bilateral issues and on the Israel-Lebanon relationship.

The Syrian track became a focal point for Barak's policy, and in January 2000 Clinton, Barak, and Syrian foreign minister Faruk al-Shara joined in an inconclusive meeting in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Clinton followed up with a summit meeting with Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad in Geneva in March, but the two leaders failed to close the gap between the Israeli and Syrian positions, primarily over the line to which Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights. Asad's death in June 2000 put an end to Syrian-track negotiations during Barak's tenure.

In summer 2000 President Clinton sought to achieve an IsraeliPalestinian breakthrough with an invitation to Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat to attend a summit meeting. But the Camp David Summit failed to achieve an agreement, with all parties blaming the others for the failureespecially Barak and Clinton pointing to Arafat's refusal to consider Barak's offer as the basis for future negotiations. This effectively marked the end of the Middle East peace process. In late September 2000 the al-Aqsa Intifada erupted, sending Israelis and Palestinians into a deadly cycle of bloodshed and violence.

Domestic Issues and Electoral Politics since 2000

The decade of the 1990s was marked by a significant immigration of some one million people from the former Soviet Unionthe largest single migration to Israel from any one country. This profoundly altered the nature of Israel's society, economics, and politics. At the same time, the economy continued to grow and prosperity became more widespread as Israel's GDP grew beyond the $100 billion level, although there was negative growth when the violence of the al-Aqsa Intifada severely affected the flow of tourism. The economy was also affected by the worldwide economic downturn and by recessions in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Nevertheless, by 2004 the economy began to recoup some of the losses of the previous few years, and positive GDP growth was again recorded.

In January 2003 Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was launched into space aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, generating pride and elation across Israel and among Jews worldwide. Tragically, Ramon was killed along with his fellow astronauts when the craft disintegrated upon its return to earth in early February after a successful mission in space.

The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada and the protracted failure to achieve a cease-fire and restart the peace process contributed to the disintegration of Ehud Barak's governing coalition. His resignation in December 2000 without the dissolution of the Knesset led to the first-ever election in Israel for prime minister only. That election was marked by the lowest turnout of eligible voters in Israel's historyabout 62 percentand signaled some uncertainty in the body politic. Ariel Sharon's landslide victory (62.6% to Barak's 37.2%) in February 2001 was attributed to Barak's failure to make peace with either Syria or the Palestinians, and to the heightened insecurity and substantial violence caused by the intifada. Sharon was elected as the candidate more likely to bring about the security Israelis were seeking. His election brought Likud back to power, and he formed a government coalition in March 2001 with Labor participation based on the Knesset that was elected in 1999.

Security and the resurrection of the peace process were the dominant themes of Sharon's tenure. Suicide bombings and other violence (such as the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeʾevi) continued to remind Israelis of their vulnerability and of the failure of the peace process. The inability or unwillingness of the Palestinian Authority to put an effective halt to terrorist acts led the Israeli government in December 2001 to declare Yasir Arafat "irrelevant" in the struggle against terrorism and to seek alternative leadership among the Palestinians to foster the moribund peace process. Subsequently, Israel began to isolate Arafat and labeled him "an enemy of the entire free world."

Arms continued to flow to the Palestinians (as evidenced by the January 2002 Israeli interception and capture of the ship Karine-A, which was carrying arms from Iranian sources to Gaza) and violence escalated. In response to the March 2002 massacre of mostly elderly Passover celebrants at the Park Hotel in the resort town of Netanya, the IDF launched major raids into the West Bank against terrorist targets in Operations Defensive Shield and Determined Path, in effect reoccupying for several months Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem, and other population centers it had previously ceded to the Palestinian Authority.

The increasing use of Palestinian suicide bombers claimed hundreds of Israeli civilian lives and led to severe retaliations by the IDF in the form of increased surveillance at checkpoints, destruction of the homes of suicide bombers' families, closures, targeted assassinations of militants, and the building of a security fence. Although it was widely supported by an Israeli population traumatized by suicide bombers infiltrating Jewish population centers and soft targets from the West Bank, the planned 450-mile security barrier (more than 95 percent of which was to be chain-link fence, with the remainder concrete walls) was criticized for being built beyond the Green Line (1949 armistice lines) and for causing hardship by disrupting the daily movements of the Palestinian population. The decision to proceed with this measure despite international criticism and sharp Palestinian denunciation reflected a growing unilateralist tendency among Israel's leaders to consider disengagement and separation from the Palestinians.

The failure of the peace process and the climate of despair and insecurity created a new watershed for Israeli foreign and security policy, and for domestic politics within Israel. It is against this background that the United States and its fellow "Quartet" members (Russia, the UN, and the European Union) pursued their efforts to have the parties agree to halt the violence as a prelude to resuming negotiations. In April 2003 the U.S. State Department made public the Quartet's "Road Map," which incorporated President George W. Bush's June 2002 vision of a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestinian impasse. Diplomatic activity on this front included shuttle diplomacy and high-level meetings, and the selection of two successive Palestinian prime ministers to negotiate with Israel.

In October 2002 Labor quit Sharon's national unity coalition government. Elections were held for the Sixteenth Knesset in January 2003, based on a revised electoral law that abandoned the separate ballot for prime minister used since 1996. The focus of the campaign was peace and security, and Labor's new leader, Amram Mitzna, led his party to its worst electoral defeat, in which its respresentation declined to only nineteen seats in the Knesset, compared to thirty-eight seats for Sharon's Likud. In February 2003 Sharon presented his new coalition government to the Knesset for its approval. The coalition was a narrower one in which Likud was clearly the dominant party, with a reinvigorated militantly secular Shinui Party as the major partner. Sharon's new government seemed poised for domestic changes on religion-society issues and for a continuing tough stand on the matter of security and peace for Israel. In 2004 the peace process was moribund, and a continuing intifada with its climate of insecurity was the main determinant of Israeli foreign and security policy, with strong implications also for domestic politics within Israel.

see also adot ha-mizrah; agnon, shmuel yosef; aqsa intifada, al-; arabisrael conflict; arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1956); arabisrael war (1967); arabisrael war (1973); arabisrael war (1982); archaeology; ashkenazim; balfour declaration (1917); barak, ehud; beersheba; begin, menachem; ben-gurion, david; bialik, hayyim nahman; camp david accords (1978); dayan, moshe; dead sea; dead sea scrolls; diaspora; eretz yisrael; gaza strip; golan heights; habib, philip charles; haifa; hamas; hebron; herzl, theodor; hizbullah; holocaust; intifada (19871991); israeli settlements; jarring, gunnar; jericho; jerusalem; jews in the middle east; labor zionism; law of return; literature: hebrew; madrid conference (1991); negev; netanyahu, benjamin; oslo accord (1993); oz, amos; palestine liberation organization (plo); palestinian citizens of israel; peres, shimon; rabin, yitzhak; sadat, anwar al-; shamir, yitzhak; sharon, ariel; sinai peninsula; taba; tchernichovsky, saul; tel aviv; tiran, strait of; united nations interim force in lebanon; war of attrition (19691970); west bank; world zionist organization (wzo); yehoshua, avraham b.; zionism.


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Israel: Overview

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