The State of Israel is an independent republic in southwest Asia. It is located between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, an arm of the Red Sea. Israel was established on May 14, 1948, as a Jewish state on land that had been part of the British mandate for Palestine. Historically, the area is considered the Holy Land for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Since 1948, Israel has fought several wars with its Arab neighbors, who refused to recognize the State of Israel for several decades. At the end of the first war (1949) Israel occupied about one-third more territory than had been allocated in the 1947 United Nations plan that partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and an international enclave including Jerusalem and the surrounding regions. The eastern and northern quarters of Jerusalem, the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the Golan Heights were brought under Israeli control as a result of the war of 1967. Under a 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israel returned Sinai to Egypt over a three-year period. In May 1994, Israeli forces withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho. Responsibility for civilian affairs and public order and safety were turned over to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) under an agreement reached in the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The area under control of the PNA in the West Bank was subsequently extended through additional accords with Israel. The 2005 withdrawal of all Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip marked the first time that Israel had voluntarily given up Israeli-settled land claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
Israel's land extends for 420 km (260 mi) from the northern border with Lebanon and Syria in the Golan Heights to Elat (Eilat), the country's port on the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. The territory it controls extends inland from the Mediterranean for 100 km (60 mi)—including the occupied West Bank—to the Rift Valley. The valley is a continuation of Africa's Great Rift Valley. It is composed in part, from north to south, of the Hula Valley (Lake Hula was drained in the 1950s); the Sea of Galilee, which lies 212 m (696 ft) below sea level; the Jordan River; and the Dead Sea, with the world's lowest land elevation (−410 m/−1,345 ft). The Arava Valley occupies the rift between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.
The southern half of Israel west of the Rift Valley is mostly desert. It is known as the Negev. North of the Negev is a mountainous region. The mountains rise to 1,208 m (3,963 ft) on Mount Meron, located in the far north near Safad; they have an average elevation of 600 m (1,970 ft). The mountains are divided by the northwest-southeast trending Plain of Esdraelon. It extends from Haifa to Beth-shan (Beth Shean) on the edge of the Rift Valley. North of Esdraelon are the hills of Galilee. To the south are Samaria and Judea (the biblical terms used by Israel for what others call the West Bank), large parts of which were turned over to the PNA beginning in 1995.
The principal lowland is a narrow coastal plain along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. North of Haifa it is known as the Plain of Zebulun; between Haifa and Tel Aviv it forms the Plain of Sharon; and south of Tel Aviv, the Plain of Judea.
The steeper mountain slopes that cover much of Israel have been severely eroded and are mostly barren. The best soils are alluvial, found in the Hula, Jordan, and Kishon valleys and the Plain of Esdraelon. The soils of the coastal plain are fertile but sandy. They require large quantities of water and fertilizer to be productive. Terra rossa soils, found in many upland limestone areas, tend to be shallow, stony, and suitable only for pasture and nonmechanized farming. Some 20% of the total land area is arable; 40% of this is irrigated.
Israel's climate is Mediterranean in the north and arid in the south. In summer the entire area is dominated by a subtropical high that brings cloudless skies and no precipitation. In winter the southern half of the country remains under the subtropical high; weather in the northern half is influenced by cyclonic depressions that pass over the Mediterranean, bringing moderate rainfall. Precipitation in the north averages 700 mm (28 in). It falls primarily from October to March. Rainfall amounts diminish rapidly to the south. Beyond Beersheba and Gaza desert conditions predominate.
Average summer temperatures range from 18° to 32° C (65° to 90° F) over most of the country. Winters are mild, with temperatures averaging 14° C (57° F) along the coast and 9° C (48° F) in the mountains. The Rift Valley is about 9 C degrees (16 F degrees) warmer than the rest of the nation in winter. The Dead Sea area is one of the hottest regions in the world.
Israel's most important river is the Jordan, 200 km (124 mi) long. Its principal tributary is the Yarmuk. The only other permanent rivers are the 32-km-long (20-mi) Yarkon and part of the 43-km-long (27-mi) Kishon. Both flow to the Mediterranean. Other watercourses are usually dry except after heavy rainfall. The waters of the Sea of Galilee bordering Syria are fresh; those of the Dead Sea are saltier than the ocean and rich in minerals. Israel's groundwater resources are being depleted rapidly, prompting desalinization efforts. The National Water Carrier distributes groundwater and water from the Sea of Galilee by way of the Kinneret-Negev Conduit, as far south as Beersheba.
Little remains of Israel's natural vegetation and indigenous animal life. Wildlife is being restored. The natural forest cover had already disappeared in ancient times. In recent decades, reforestation of the uplands has created new forests consisting mainly of pine trees. Many of the pine forests in the hills of northern Galilee were destroyed by rockets launched by Hezbollah guerrillas during the 2006 conflict with Lebanon. Grasslands in the Hula Valley below also burned; they had been an important source of cattle feed.
Israel has no coal and only small exploited deposits of petroleum and natural gas, although a new natural-gas field of unknown extent was located offshore in 2000. None of its rivers is suitable for the generation of hydroelectric power. Israel's principal minerals are potash, produced by evaporation of Dead Sea water, and phosphates.
Israel was established in 1948 as a homeland for Jews. The Jewish population now forms just over 80% of the total within the 1949 frontiers. In fact, in the early 21st century it was predicted that Israel would soon become home to the largest Jewish population in the world because its birthrates were exceeding those of Jews in the United States, which currently held that position. This rapid growth rate, rather than immigration, is now the primary cause of the increase in Israel's Jewish community. Immigration has declined to about 20,000 annually in recent years. The Arab population of Israel and the occupied territories, however, is rapidly approaching the size of the Jewish community. It is also expanding at an even greater rate, which the Israeli government sees as a threat to Israel's Jewish identity.
Israel's Jewish immigrants (olim) come from many different national backgrounds. These include the urbanized societies of Europe and North America and the predominantly Islamic culture areas of Asia and North Africa. The latter have often faced problems of adjustment to Israel's democratic and technologically advanced society. Due to their higher birthrate, Jews from Asia and North Africa (including, most recently, substantial numbers of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants called Falashas) formed a growing percentage of the population. This increased their political influence.
This trend was altered by the massive influx of Soviet Jews that began in late 1989. Soviet Jews formed the largest wave of migrants in Israeli history. Between 1990 and 1997 some 823,000 Jews emigrated from the former Soviet Union. By 2000, Jews from Russia and the former Soviet republics constituted about 15% of Israel's population and were the largest single ethnic group. It had been anticipated that continued immigration from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere would ensure a Jewish majority in Israel. In fact, about 7.7% of the 937,000 Soviet Jews who emigrated there between 1989 and 2003 later left, mostly for Europe and the United States, and as many as one-fourth of the country's Russian immigrants were contemplating doing so. In the early 21st century, there was increased immigration from other areas, such as economically depressed Argentina.
The non-Jewish population consists mainly of Arabs. They make up 18% of the total population and are concentrated mostly in Galilee. The concerns of Arab citizens of Israel for their future mounted following the 2005 Israeli evacuation of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, which were seen as part of an ongoing effort to make Israel more demographically Jewish. Roughly 10% of Israeli Arabs are Bedouin; they are descended from Arabic-speaking desert nomads who live primarily in the Negev and the area around Galilee. Israeli policies have restricted Bedouin access to land and water. Fewer than 10% of them now practice their traditional way of life. The modern Bedouin generally lack skills and education; they are considered among the poorest of Israel's poor. By 2005 there were 2,385,615 Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and 1,376,289 in Gaza. Nearly 390,000 Jews settled in the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) after 1967.
The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. The great majority of Jews speak Hebrew in public but often use their native tongue in their homes. English is widely used as a second language. Russian has also become commonplace.
Freedom of religion and the inviolability of the holy places and centers of worship for all religions are guaranteed by law. For the Jewish population, supreme religious authority is vested in the Chief Rabbinate, made up of a chief rabbi from the Ashkenazim and one from the Sephardim, along with the Supreme Rabbinical Council. Small Jewish minorities that reject the rabbinic tradition and law include the Karaites (near Tel Aviv) and the Samaritans (in Holon and Nablus).
Israel's Arab minority is 83% Muslim, 9% Christian, and 8% Druze. Also followers of Islam are the Circassians. This small group, brought to the region in the 19th century from the Caucasus, is now concentrated in Galilee. The Druzes broke away from Islam in the 11th century and practice their own religion. Israel is also a center of the Baha'i Faith.
In Israel, personal-status matters such as marriage and divorce are controlled by the leaders of the various recognized religious communities. The Muslim, Druze, and various Christian denominations each have their own religious courts. The Orthodox Jewish Rabbinate exercises strong control over many aspects of daily life, including food imports and religious observance; it receives generous state subsidies. In 2005, however, the Supreme Court ended the Orthodox monopoly on conversions to Judaism in Israel. It recognized non-Orthodox conversions performed partially in the state and partly abroad.
Israel is one of the world's most highly urbanized nations. The three largest cities are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv–Jaffa, and Haifa. Jewish rural settlers generally live in cooperative villages called moshavim or collective villages called kibbutzim (singular, kibbutz) operated on a communal basis. There are a smaller number of moshavoth, based on private enterprise, and moshavim shitufim, where production is based on a communal effort but households remain private units.
Israel ranks among the world's most highly developed nations in providing educational and health services. Education is free and compulsory through grade 12; parental income determines fees for children attending postprimary schools. Higher education is provided at numerous colleges and eight institutions with university status. These include the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology (1912) in Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1918), and the University of Judea and Samaria in the occupied West Bank, which was controversially granted university status in 2005. The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovoth is a leading scientific research center.
Health-care costs for the overwhelming majority of the population are covered by health-insurance programs. Major communicable diseases are under control, and the death rate is one of the lowest in Asia.
One of Israel's greatest cultural achievements is its revival of the Hebrew language, which has been adapted for modern use with the aid of Jerusalem's Academy for the Hebrew Language, founded in 1953. Most modern Israeli literature is written in Hebrew. Most plays performed are either translated into or originally written in Hebrew . Many contemporary Israeli writers have had their works translated into and published in Western languages. Israel's greatest modern Hebrew fiction writer, S. Y. Agnon, was a corecipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature.
Israeli architects are working to develop a national style and design. For about 25 years the German Bauhaus style was emulated, but the strongest influence is the style of the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, creator of Habitat (in Montreal). The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra enjoys world renown. Other orchestras and many choral and chamber music groups are active in the country. Archaeology is pursued not only by professionals but also by amateurs as a hobby. Many relics are housed in the nation's museums, especially the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
In the early years immediately following independence, resources were scarce and rationing was imposed. Real economic growth did not occur until the second half of the 1950s as overseas capital became available for investment. From that time until 1973 the gross national product grew at an annual rate of 10%. After 1973 its growth rate declined sharply. The economy was adversely affected by inflation, currency devaluations, the world petroleum crisis, and military expenditures. After the mid-1980s, the government was faced with an inflation rate exceeding 400%, a huge foreign debt, and a severe balance-of-payments deficit. It therefore introduced a series of economic austerity measures. By 1988 the inflation rate had been reduced to less than 25%; it stood at virtually zero by 2004. In the early 1990s the economy had faced new strains due to the massive costs of resettling hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews, and unemployment rose to double-digit figures.
The round of Palestinian-Israeli violence that began in September 2000 has caused sharp contractions in exports, construction, and tourism, negating much of Israel's recent economic expansion. The situation was exacerbated by a global economic slowdown in 2001 that intensified following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Money available for social services declined, consumer spending dropped, and tourist visits reached the lowest level in a decade. The government has made great strides in economic reform. Nevertheless, unemployment (particularly among blue-collar workers) remains high. More than one-sixth of the total population is estimated to live below the poverty line (including nearly half of all Arab-Israelis), and the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.
The Histadrut, Israel's labor federation, remains the country's largest voluntary organization and a major political and economic force. The power of the Histadrut was greatly curtailed, however, both by internal elections in 1993 that undercut control by the Labor party, and by legislation passed in 1994 ending its domination of the health-care system. A three-year recession caused by reduced tax receipts and increased military spending due to renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence ended in the final quarter of 2003. By 2004, after the government cut back on a wide range of social programs and introduced market-oriented reforms, the economy was expanding at an annual rate of nearly 4%. Although this was the economy's best performance since the late 1990s, the impact of austerity measures on the poor has provoked broad opposition to that aspect of reforms.
Tel Aviv and Haifa are the principal manufacturing centers, but industrial facilities are dispersed throughout the nation. The major industries include food processing and the manufacture of wood and paper products, fertilizers, machinery, electrical goods, electronic and precision equipment, and chemical products. Armaments and diamond cutting and polishing are among the leading export-oriented industries. A high-technology revolution has transformed the Israeli economy in recent years. By 1998 high-tech products such as software and aviation, communications, medical, and fiber-optic equipment accounted for more than one-third of all Israeli exports, a share that subsequently continued to grow.
Mining is not economically significant. The chief mineral product is potash, extracted from the Dead Sea. Small natural-gas deposits are worked at the southern end of the Dead Sea. Small quantities of crude petroleum, supplying less than 1% of national consumption, are produced in the Heletz region southeast of Ashqelon.
Israel is heavily dependent on petroleum for its energy needs. Except for the small domestic output, petroleum is imported. It is refined in Haifa and Ashdod. In 2003 electricity production reached 44.24 billion kW h.
The amount of land cultivated and irrigated has steadily increased since 1948, through creation of new communal and collective settlements. Poultry and dairy farming have also expanded. So has the output of citrus, olives, grapes, cotton, vegetables, and flowers. Citrus, especially Jaffa oranges, and early vegetables are important export items. Forestry is commercially insignificant, but reforestation is actively promoted in the interest of soil and groundwater conservation. Fishing is of minor importance.
All transportation facilities are state controlled. Rail transportation is poorly developed, and none of the country's waterways are navigable. Accordingly, most passenger and freight traffic moves by road. Israel's two ports on the Mediterranean are Haifa and Ashdod. Elat serves as the port for the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. El-Al, the money-losing state-owned Israeli airline (which the government intends to gradually privatize), flies from Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, the main international airport. Domestic flights are operated by Arkia Israel Inland Airlines.
The Israeli government controls the radio and television broadcasting industry. Publishing is concentrated in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where all of the daily newspapers are printed. Most major newspapers are in Hebrew (a notable exception is the English-language Jerusalem Post). Many are subsidized by political parties or religious groups. There are also numerous smaller dailies and other periodicals published in Arabic, Bulgarian, French, German, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, and Yiddish.
Israel's imports usually exceed exports in value. The deficit is made up in part by revenues from tourism, financial aid, and foreign investment. Machinery, electronic equipment, software, and armaments are the leading exports, followed by cut diamonds, agricultural products, and chemicals. The principal imports are raw materials (including uncut diamonds from South Africa), fuel and lubricants, and consumer goods. Israel enjoys special trading privileges in the European Union (EU). It trades mostly with EU members and the United States. More than 90% of Israel's imports and exports come from or travel to destinations outside the Middle East. In late 2003 the EU imposed new place-of-origin labeling requirements on exports from Israel. Because only exports from Israel proper are entitled to customs exemptions under its free-trade agreement with the EU, the labeling decision was expected to have a negative impact on firms in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and exert new pressure on Israel's controversial settlements policy.
The country also receives considerable foreign aid from the United States. In January 2001 the two countries signed an agreement that would gradually phase out U.S. economic aid to Israel (an estimated $662 million in 2003) by 2008 while increasing military assistance.
Israel is divided into six administrative districts: Central, Haifa, Jerusalem, Northern, Southern, and Tel Aviv. The country is a parliamentary democracy. Legislative powers are vested in the Knesset, a unicameral parliament of 120 members elected for 4-year terms, pending dissolution. The cabinet holds executive power. It is chosen by the prime minister but must be endorsed by the Knesset. Israel does not have a written constitution. A number of basic laws serve together as the fundamental law. All citizens of age 18 or over are eligible to vote. Votes are cast for national lists of candidates submitted by each of the political parties. Usually more than 10 parties win seats in an election, and the governments have always been based on coalitions.
Until 1968 the Mapai party dominated Israeli politics, led by David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, and Levi Eshkol. In 1968, Mapai merged with Rafi and Achdut Avoda to form the Labor party. Labor remained dominant under Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin until 1977. Likud, a coalition of right-wing parties led by the Herut (Freedom) party, then came to power under Menachem Begin. He was succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir in 1983. In a 1984 power-sharing agreement, Labor leader Shimon Peres became prime minister; Shamir replaced him in 1986. Indecisive results in the 1988 elections led to the formation of another Likud-Labor coalition, with Shamir as prime minister. Disagreements over how to proceed with the Middle East peace process led to the collapse of this coalition in the spring of 1990. Shamir finally constructed a Likud-led center-right coalition government, which was installed in June 1990. In 1992, Rabin recaptured leadership of the Labor party from Peres; he became prime minister of a center-left coalition government after elections in June 1992. When Rabin was assassinated late in 1995, Peres became prime minister. After a narrow defeat in Israel's first direct elections for prime minister in May 1996, Peres was succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu, who had replaced Shamir as leader of the Likud party in 1993.
The new electoral process increased the influence of smaller parties in the legislature. Chaim Herzog, who was elected president by the Knesset in 1983 and 1988, was succeeded by Ezer Weizman in 1993. In June 1997, Peres was succeeded as Labor party leader by former army chief of staff Ehud Barak, who became prime minister in 1999. Weizman, who had been reelected president by the Knesset in 1998, resigned in July 2000; he was succeeded by Likud candidate Moshe Katzav. Barak, who by that time headed a minority government, submitted his resignation in December 2000.
A new election for Barak's post, but not for the Knesset, was held on Feb. 6, 2001. Barak lost to hard-line Likud leader Ariel Sharon, who formed a new national unity government that included Labor, Likud, Shas, and several small center and right-wing parties on Mar. 7, 2001. That same day, the legislature voted overwhelmingly to abandon direct elections for the post of prime minister. Israel then returned to the previous system of having the Knesset select the prime minister. The return acknowledged that holding separate elections for the Knesset and the head of government had actually weakened the position of prime minister by expanding the influence of small parties. This change became effective with the next general elections, which took place in January 2003. Labor made its worst-ever showing, and Sharon formed a right-wing coalition government after his Likud won the largest number of seats. Labor, which had again been led by elder statesman Peres from June 2003, joined a new coalition government headed by Sharon in January 2005. In the 2006 elections the new centrist Kadima party, founded by Sharon after he abandoned Likud, won the largest number of seats. Ehud Olmert, who had become prime minister after Sharon suffered a massive stroke in January 2006, formed a new coalition that included Labor, Shas, and the new Pensioners party. The latter had unexpectedly won 7 seats campaigning on the issue of higher social benefits for the elderly.
The modern state of Israel was established in Palestine, formed after World War I from territory that was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Following the war Palestine was designated a League of Nations mandate. It was assigned to Great Britain, which governed it until the mandate ended in 1948. The major dilemma facing the British was how to reconcile conflicting promises made during World War I to Arabs and Jews in exchange for their wartime assistance. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917 the British government promised the Zionist movement to help establish a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Various promises were also made to support the independence of former Arab provinces in the Ottoman Empire. When provisions of the Balfour Declaration were incorporated into the terms of the mandate for Palestine, which took effect in 1922, Arab nationalists felt betrayed.
During the mandate Palestine's Jewish population increased from 65,000 to over 600,000, largely as a result of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. The Arab population grew from approximately 600,000 to about 1,300,000, mostly through natural increase. As the Jewish presence in Palestine expanded, the Arab population became apprehensive about its future. Arab opposition to British rule and Zionist settlement erupted in several uprisings; it culminated in a countrywide revolt beginning in 1936 that was suppressed by the British in 1939.
At the end of World War II the Zionist movement and the Jewish community in Palestine reacted to the Holocaust (the German slaughter of European Jewry) with demands for the immediate establishment of Palestine as a Jewish state. Jewish underground extremists movements such as Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang staged armed attacks on British and Arab targets. A revolt against restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine led Great Britain to place the issue before the United Nations in 1947. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly recommended partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. A separate international enclave would include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and their environs, which contained sites regarded as holy by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Most Zionists accepted the partition plan. Arabs and many Muslim countries opposed it. Between November 1947 and the British departure from Palestine on May 13, 1948, when the mandate expired, civil war erupted between the country's Arabs and Jews. As Israel issued its declaration of independence on May 14, the surrounding Arab countries also attacked it. The first in a series of Arab-Israeli Wars ended in victory for the Jewish state. More than half of Palestine's Arab population fled their homes, and armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon determined Israel's frontiers until 1967.
Israel's principal concern since its founding has been national security—how to maintain military superiority over Arab neighbors who, until the 1970s, refused to recognize the Jewish state, make peace, or negotiate directly on terms the Israelis would accept. A series of wars have drained the resources of both Israel and the Arab world.
A major objective in establishing Israel was to facilitate Jewish immigration. One of the first legislative acts, the Law of Return (adopted July 5, 1950), made it possible for almost any Jew to enter Israel. After entering, he or she was entitled to automatic citizenship. Absorption of Jewish immigrants received the highest priority. An influx of refugees from Europe doubled the population by 1952. During the 1950s there was a second wave of immigration from Arab countries where the situation of Jews was imperiled by the conflict with Israel. The arrival of more than 500,000 such immigrants changed Israel's demographic character. After 1952 the pace of immigration slowed until the collapse of the Soviet Union made it possible for Jews there to leave in large numbers.
Large military expenditures, expensive new equipment, and the costs of immigrant absorption severely strained the economy. Assistance from abroad and the utilization of property abandoned by the Palestinian Arab refugees helped to prevent financial collapse. Of the 370 new Jewish settlements established between 1948 and 1953, 350 were formerly Arab. These included whole cities such as Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, and Ramla. By 1954, more than one-third of Israel's Jews lived on former Arab property. Israel received restitution agreed to by West Germany in 1952 for Nazi war crimes and large-scale assistance from Jews in the United States and other Western countries. In addition, the United States provided substantial economic and military aid. By the 1990s it was the largest single recipient of U.S. foreign aid. By 1953, Israel entered a 20-year period of rapid economic expansion, with an average annual growth rate of about 10%. A variety of new industries were established and agricultural productivity increased greatly, although balance-of-payments deficits, debts from foreign loans, and inflation continued to plague the country.
Arab guerrilla attacks and Palestinian refugee infiltration across the border were among the causes of the Suez-Sinai War of 1956. Disputes over access to Jordan River waters and the failure to resolve the refugee problem and borders with the neighboring Arab countries precipitated the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel's victory in this war resulted in its occupation of the Sinai peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Jordanian-held Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem—a total area about four times that within the 1949 armistice frontiers. Israel emerged from the 1967 war as the strongest military power in the Middle East.
Egypt and Syria attempted to regain their lost territories in a surprise attack on Israel in October 1973, the Yom Kippur War. Although Israel scored another military victory, it suffered many casualties and a major economic setback. The economic and political repercussions of the October War led to the first defeat of the Labor government in the 1977 Knesset election. The new right-wing Likud government led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised to liberalize the economy and free it from government controls. However, Begin's greatest accomplishment was the peace treaty with Egypt signed in March 1979. Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel and establish normal relations with it. In exchange, Israel returned the Sinai peninsula.
The Begin government adamantly opposed the return of other Arab territories. In 1980 it formally proclaimed the entire city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In 1981 it annexed the Golan Heights. Jewish West Bank settlement was greatly increased in the face of Palestinian resistance. By 1980 fighting between Israel and the PLO intensified, with attacks by Palestinian guerrillas from bases in southern Lebanon. Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to destroy these bases, end PLO influence in the West Bank, force Syria out of Lebanon, and conclude a peace treaty with Lebanon. The PLO was temporarily driven from Lebanon, but other war objectives were unattained. Furthermore, this war was the first opposed by large numbers of Israelis, particularly after a massacre of Palestinians in Beirut by Israel's Maronite Christian allies. A Likud setback in the 1984 election led to a Labor-Likud coalition promising a withdrawal from Lebanon and a new economic policy. By 1985 only a few Israeli troops remained, patrolling a security zone in south Lebanon with their Lebanese allies.
In December 1987, Palestinian opposition to Israeli occupation sparked an uprising (intifada). The coalition government was unable to suppress it despite harsh measures used by the Israeli army. Deep divisions in Israel over occupation policy and a peace settlement resulted in another close election in 1988. A second Likud-Labor coalition was formed. It broke up in 1990 when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir fired Labor's foreign minister, Shimon Peres.
Although Iraq bombarded Israeli civilian targets with Scud missiles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Israel stayed out of the fighting. Despite Iraq's defeat in the war, the collapse of Soviet support for several Arab countries, the intifada, and pressure from the United States, little progress was made in postwar peace talks. After Likud was defeated in the 1992 election, Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to negotiate with and recognize the PLO. The first of the Israeli-PLO agreements known as the Oslo accords were signed in September 1993. They opened a new phase in negotiations. Rabin, Foreign Minister Peres, and Arafat shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. The agreement with the PLO cleared the way for a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan (October 1994) and improved Israel's relations with some of its other Arab neighbors. Nevertheless, many Likud supporters continued to oppose any dealings with PLO leader Yasir Arafat, whom they considered a terrorist. They argued that, according to the Bible, the conquered lands (especially the West Bank) belonged to Israel. They also believed that ceding "land for peace" would threaten national security.
Subsequent negotiations between Israel and the PLO were difficult and protracted. A September 1995 accord failed to resolve the status of Jerusalem. It did, however, permit East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in 1996 elections for a Palestinian legislative council. Israel also faced increasingly violent opposition to the Israeli-PLO accords by the militant Islamic Hamas and by a small extremist Zionist minority; Rabin himself was assassinated by a right-wing student on Nov. 4, 1995.
Peres then became prime minister. He narrowly lost the May 29, 1996, election to Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. Most of Hebron, the last major Arab West Bank city still under Israeli occupation, was turned over to Palestinian control on Jan. 17, 1997. In March, however, peace talks broke down over the twin issues of renewed Israeli settlement in Arab East Jerusalem and Palestinian Arab terrorist activities. A 1997 Israeli attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Amman worsened Israel's already strained relationship with Jordan. In addition, renewed violence in southern Lebanon prompted calls for a reexamination of the Israeli role there.
On May 14, 1998, Israel celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence. During those 50 years, it had grown from a tiny, embattled state to a strong and prosperous nation. It had a per capita income nearly that of some European nations. Yet it was still formally at war with many of its neighbors. Israelis themselves were deeply divided over whether Israel should be a religious or secular state. By Sept. 13, 1998, the fifth anniversary of the signing of the historic Israeli-PLO accord, the Gaza Strip and all major cities on the West Bank were under Palestinian self-rule and Israel had gained general acceptance in the Arab world. But the peace process remained mired in controversy.
The peace process finally restarted following the May 17, 1999, elections. Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak, who assembled a broad coalition government that generally favored exchanging land for peace. In September, Barak and Arafat signed a revised Wye River accord. Under its terms, Israel would release 350 Palestinian prisoners by October, guarantee safe-passage corridors between the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Palestinians, and turn over an additional 11% of the West Bank controlled by Israel (plus another 7.1% under joint control) to Palestinian control by February 2000. The Palestinians were to implement the accord's security commitments; they were also permitted to begin constructing a seaport at Gaza. The first land transfer to Palestinian civil administration under the accord took place in September 1999. The second, scheduled to take place by November 15, was delayed until early January 2000. The third phase of the withdrawal, slated to take place on Jan. 20, 2000, was also delayed.
The two sides still remained far apart on many issues, however. The Palestinians sought an independent state consisting of the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. They also insisted that Palestinian Arabs who fled during the 1948 war and their descendants be allowed to return to their former homes. Israel wanted to retain sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and a presence in some parts of the West Bank. It believed that the Palestinian entity should be something less than an independent state, and wanted the refugees to be given compensation and become naturalized citizens of the countries in which they currently lived. Peace negotiations that began in November set a deadline of Feb. 13, 2000, for establishing a framework agreement spelling out the respective positions of both sides on these difficult issues, with a final peace accord to be reached by Sept. 13, 2000. Neither deadline was met.
Peace talks between Syria and Israel—the first in nearly four years—were held in Washington, D.C., in December 1999. Negotiations later collapsed when Barak refused to commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights; Syria insisted this be a precondition to further talks.
In March 2000, shortly before peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians resumed in Washington, D.C., the Israeli cabinet voted to unilaterally end the Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon by July of that year. The long overdue handover of an additional 6.1% of the West Bank to Palestinian control also took place in March. This brought nearly 43% of the West Bank and some 60% of its Palestinian Arab inhabitants under direct or indirect control of the PNA.
Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March 2000. He thus became the first pope to visit Israel since it normalized relations with the Vatican. While there he offered an indirect apology for his church's public silence during the Holocaust. U.S. president Bill Clinton called for a three-way summit between himself, Barak, and Arafat. The summit, held in July at Camp David, Md., did not lead to a final accord.
The following month, a controversial visit by Likud leader Ariel Sharon to one of Jerusalem's holiest sites to assert Israeli sovereignty sparked rioting by Palestinian Arabs and Israeli retaliation. Diplomatic efforts shifted from reaching a final peace accord to halting the uprising, which revealed deep Palestinian dissatisfaction with the Oslo peace process itself and a growing feeling among Palestinian Arabs that what they considered a just peace could be reached only through the use of force. For the first time, Israel's Arab citizens joined in the demonstrations.
In December 2000, Barak unexpectedly called new elections for prime minister. Although Barak and Arafat had conditionally accepted in principle a U.S. plan to restart the peace talks, they were unable to make the hard compromises needed for a final accord before Clinton left office on Jan. 20, 2001. Barak had hoped to gain a fresh mandate to continue the peace process. Instead, he lost the Feb. 6, 2001, elections to Sharon by a wide margin. His loss was due to Israeli security concerns and his waning support among Arab Israelis. He subsequently announced the withdrawal of the concessions put forward earlier by his government. Reportedly, these had included the formation of a Palestinian state on 95% of the West Bank, all of the Gaza Strip, and much of East Jerusalem—but not the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendants to return to their former homes in what was now Israel. The Arab world supported the Palestinian position that any new peace talks would have to begin where the old ones had broken off. Sharon rejected it. Arafat's faction of the PLO responded to Sharon's victory by calling for an escalation of the anti-Israeli uprising.
Sharon was sworn in as prime minister on Mar. 7, 2001. He formed a broad-based new government that included Likud, Labor, Shas, and several small center and right-wing parties. While he subsequently agreed to ease some of the restrictions that were crippling the Palestinian economy and fueling Palestinian resentment, he also launched a brief (and widely criticized) Israeli military occupation of a strife-torn Palestinian-administered area in the Gaza Strip. He also sanctioned the assassination of intifada leaders and repeated incursions into Palestinian territory, and rejected demands to end renewed Israeli settlement activity. The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States changed the dynamics of the all-but-dead peace process. Sharon, like leaders throughout the Arab world, immediately offered his condolences. He and Arafat subsequently agreed to a new cease-fire, although Sharon accused the United States of being willing to sacrifice vital Israeli interests to gain support for its war on global terrorism.
In October 2001 Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi was assassinated by the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose leader had earlier been assassinated by the Israelis. Israel then launched a major military assault on several Palestinian-controlled towns in the West Bank. In mid-December, Israel cut all ties with Arafat. Israeli troops were sent into the West Bank and Gaza Strip to arrest Palestinian terrorists and confiscate weapons. By the time the year 2002 began, attitudes on both sides had hardened. The Palestinians rejected Sharon's February 2002 proposal of a Palestinian state that was much smaller than that offered by Barak, did not include any part of Jerusalem, and left Israeli settlements intact.
On Mar. 29, 2002, Israeli tanks again entered Ramallah in the first of a series of reoccupations of Palestinian urban areas. Soon after, Sharon reluctantly approved plans to shut down routes to Israeli cities used by suicide bombers. They involved fencing off about one-third of the West Bank along the pre-1967 border (a similar fence had already been constructed along the border with the Gaza Strip). Construction of a security barrier around three sides of Jerusalem also began. Israel insisted that these activities, which imposed great hardships on Palestinian civilians, were designed to arrest Palestinian militants and dismantle their facilities. Many Arabs believed that they marked the first step in an Israeli effort to eviscerate the Palestinian administration and reoccupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The international community condemned both the suicide bombings and Israel's military actions, stating that they were bringing the region ever closer to all-out war.
In what was seen as a major shift in military policy, Israel said that it would continue to expand its reoccupation of some Palestinian urban lands in the West Bank and remain in the areas it had taken until the suicide bombings stopped. The Israeli government did release some of the back taxes owed to the PNA in July 2002; it also moved to dramatically cut public spending in Israel as an economic recession caused by the Palestinian uprising and a global economic slowdown continued.
Sharon's coalition government of national unity collapsed on Oct. 30, 2002, when the Labor party withdrew due to differences over a new budget that it felt favored Jewish settlements over social programs. Sharon then appointed Netanyahu as foreign minister and dissolved the Knesset, calling new elections for Jan. 28, 2003. A November 28 suicide bombing attack on an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya was allegedly linked to Al Qaeda—its first on an Israeli target. That same day, mobile Scud missiles were launched at a plane full of Israeli tourists as it left the airport at Mombasa, Kenya; although they failed to hit their target, they marked a frightening escalation in the attacks on Israeli citizens. The new coalition that Sharon formed after the January 2003 elections was the first Likud coalition that did not include either Labor or the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Israel overwhelmingly supported the Iraq War, launched by a U.S.-led coalition in March 2003 but remained on the sidelines to avoid further enflaming Arab antiwar sentiments. Britain, the chief U.S. ally in the war, insisted that an immediate postwar U.S. diplomatic push to establish a Palestinian state and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essential to any lasting peace in the Middle East. A new peace plan known as the "road map" was presented to both sides on Apr. 30, 2003—the day after the Palestinian Legislative Council had approved a cabinet headed by new Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and the day before the United States declared that the military combat phase of the Iraq War had come to an end.
Sharon clearly had reservations about the plan, but he convinced the Israeli cabinet to endorse it on May 25, 2003. Despite strong criticism from the right, he made what many considered a stunning turnaround the following day, when he told Israelis that it was impossible for them to continue ruling 3.5 million Palestinians forever and that they must eventually trade land for peace. Nevertheless, he also declared that there would be no peace deal unless the Palestinians ended their attacks on Israelis and said that Palestinian Arab refugees would never be allowed to return to their former homes in Israel. On August 21, following a suicide bombing attack on a Jerusalem bus that killed 22 people and Israel's killing of a senior Hamas political leader in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad called off the unilateral cease-fire they had declared on June 29 and Sharon broke off all contacts with the PNA. Arafat declared the "road map" dead on September 2, and Abbas resigned on September 6.
On Oct. 5, 2003, in retaliation for an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Haifa the previous day that killed 19 Israelis, Israeli warplanes bombed what Israel said was a terrorist training camp used by Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups deep in Syrian territory. It was the first Israeli air strike against Syria in 30 years.
Increasingly, Sharon and some members of his party—and much of the Israeli public—appeared to favor the idea of ceding some territory for a Palestinian state to preserve Israel's Jewish identity. To show that Israel was contemplating the withdrawal not from weakness but from a position of strength, Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip assassinated Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on Mar. 22, 2004, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, on Apr. 17, 2004. The assassinations provoked outrage throughout the region. U.S. president Bush, who had been criticized for his apparently uncritical support of Sharon's withdrawal plan, subsequently reaffirmed his support for the "road map" peace plan and a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs that resulted in a two-state solution. One of the provisions of the "road map" was the dismantling of unauthorized West Bank outposts by Israel.
On October 25, Sharon formally presented the Gaza withdrawal plan to the Knesset, which voted 67-45 to support it, with 7 abstentions. It also approved a bill to compensate settlers leaving Gaza under the controversial plan. Although opinion polls indicated that about two-thirds of Israelis favored the withdrawal, Sharon refused demands from both within and outside -his party to hold a referendum on the issue.
The International Court of Justice had been asked to take up the matter of Israel's West Bank security barrier by the UN General Assembly in February 2004. On July 9, 2004, it ruled that the barricade was illegal and must be dismantled. The Israeli government refused to accept the court's jurisdiction. Following a June Israeli High Court decision, it did agree to reroute some sections of the barrier in an effort to reduce its impact on the Palestinians.
On Dec. 9, 2004, Likud (which held just 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset) voted to invite Labor to join Sharon's coalition to avoid new general elections and the derailment of his plan to withdraw from Gaza. Labor strongly supported the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. Abbas, the winner of the Jan. 9, 2005, Palestinian presidential elections, also supported renewed talks. Nevertheless, it was unclear what effect the death of Arafat on Nov. 11, 2004, would have on the still-moribund peace process. Sharon's new cabinet, which included Labor and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, was approved by the Knesset on Jan. 10, 2005.
At a landmark summit between Sharon and Abbas on Feb. 8, 2005, the two sides agreed to an informal truce. Despite the fact that a growing number of Palestinians, including militants, believed that suicide bombing attacks targeting Israeli civilians damaged Abbas's negotiating power and the Palestinian economy, it was unclear whether the latest cease-fire would be any more successful than the ones that had preceded it. Israel's controversial proposal to construct about 3,500 new houses east of Jerusalem once again drove home the fact that the settlements remained a major stumbling block to a final resolution; the U.S. government warned that such action would clearly violate the terms of the "road map."
On Feb. 20, 2005, the Israeli cabinet voted 17-5 to support Sharon's plan to remove settlers from all 21 Israeli settlements and their associated military bases in the Gaza Strip and 4 of the 120 in the West Bank. Netanyahu's August 7 resignation from the cabinet to protest the impeding Gaza pullout failed to dent Sharon's determination to proceed. In an effort to persuade more of the 8,500 Gaza settlers to leave peacefully, those who refused were declared ineligible for compensation and told they would be forcibly evicted.
On Aug. 11, 2005, a joint Israeli-Palestinian operations center was set up in the Gaza Strip to oversee the withdrawal, with Egypt agreeing to police the international border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt thereafter to prevent arms smuggling by militants. The Gaza Strip was formally sealed to all Israeli civilians on August 14, after which soldiers gave the remaining settlers until midnight on August 16 to leave voluntarily without forfeiting government compensation. The last of the settlers and their supporters were removed from the Gaza Strip and the four West Bank settlements on August 23 in a process that was remarkably peaceful. The last Israeli soldiers were withdrawn on September 12.
Netanyahu's subsequent challenge to Sharon for the leadership of Likud failed. But when new Labor leader Amir Peretz quit his coalition to focus on returning his party to its socialist roots, Sharon's government collapsed. He then turned the Israeli political scene upside down by resigning from Likud. He formed an alternative centrist party, Kadima (Forward), to contest elections scheduled for Mar. 28, 2006. Peres resigned from Labor and backed Sharon's new party. Both political stalwarts clearly hoped to capitalize on the Gaza pullout to draw the final borders of a defensible and demographically Jewish state that would coexist with a new Palestinian one.
Sharon suffered a massive stroke on Jan. 4, 2006, throwing the Israeli political scene into new turmoil. Soon after his deputy Ehud Olmert became acting prime minister, the Likud members of the cabinet resigned. Uncertainty about the nature of the post-Sharon era grew after the stunning Hamas victory in the Jan. 25, 2006, Palestinian legislative elections. The Israeli government refused to deal with Hamas until the Islamist group abandoned the clause in its charter calling for the destruction of Israel and disarmed. Olmert announced that if he remained prime minister he would unilaterally establish permanent borders for Israel within four years if a negotiated final settlement had not been reached by that time. It was the first time that an Israeli leader had set such a timetable. Olmert had already stated that he intended to remove additional West Bank settlements and divert settlement spending to Jerusalem and the underdeveloped Negev Desert and Galilee. His plan thus seemed likely to cut East Jerusalem off from the West Bank and separate Israel from most Palestinian Arabs.
Kadima won the largest number of seats in the March 28, 2006, elections (29), but its victory was smaller than had been expected. Labor placed second, with 19 seats. Likud tallied only 12, indicating that Israeli voters had generally abandoned the right-wing dream of Greater Israel (Eretz Yisrael). Olmert was formally invited to form a new government on April 6. On April 9 he broke off all direct contacts with the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Sharon's reign officially ended on April 11 when he was declared permanently incapacitated. Olmert's new cabinet was approved on May 4. His coalition government included not only the Labor and Pensioners parties but also the ultra-Orthodox Shas, which was not required to back Olmert's disengagement plan. Even then, the prime minister had the support of only 67 members of the 120-member Knesset. Rising star Tzipi Livni remained foreign minister, and Labor leader Peretz was given the defense portfolio.
The military wing of Hamas abandoned its 16-month self-imposed truce on June 10, 2006. Abbas attempted to call a referendum that would force Hamas to endorse renewed peace talks on a two-state solution. It called for implicit rather than explicit recognition of Israel and asserted the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. It was thus unlikely to be acceptable to most Israelis. Ideas of a referendum were soon abandoned, however. Instead, the region was engulfed in a new wave of violence.
The armed wing of Hamas in Gaza was among three groups taking credit for a June 25, 2006, cross-border raid in which an Israeli soldier was captured. Militants also continued to launch rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel retaliated. It bombed Gaza's power station and allowed only small amounts of food and other essential supplies through the border crossings. This escalated the already-serious economic crisis in Gaza. The Israeli army also reentered the Gaza Strip. It seized and imprisoned many Hamas legislators and cabinet members and bombed the prime minister's office.
The war in Gaza had largely escaped public attention when a second front opened in Lebanon. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah guerrillas staged a daring cross-border raid, capturing two Israeli soldiers. This sparked the worst violence since Israel ended its 18-year occupation of Lebanon in 2000. Israeli aerial and ground attacks destroyed much of Lebanon's recently rebuilt infrastructure and imposed an air and sea blockade on the entire country. Especially hard-hit was Hezbollah's southern Shiite stronghold. Hundreds of Lebanese civilians died, and about one-fourth of the country's people fled their homes. Scores of Israelis also died as Hezbollah launched thousands of rockets into northern Israel. As hostilities escalated over the ensuing weeks, the international community sought a swift end to a war that had already had devastating consequences. With Iraq teetering on the brink of civil war and much of the rest of the Arab world viewing Iranian-and-Syrian-backed Hezbollah as its champion, there were fears that the war in Lebanon might widen into a regional conflict. Instead, after 34 days of combat, the two sides agreed to a UN-brokered truce in August. By this time some 1,200 Lebanese (mostly civilians) and 160 Israelis (mostly soldiers) had died. UN peacekeeping forces were deployed, and the last Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon on Oct. 1, 2006. On Oct. 30, 2006, the Israeli cabinet approved adding the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party to the ruling coalition to strengthen the government. The head of Israel's armed forces, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, resigned on Jan. 16, 2007.
In April 2007 the preliminary report of an official Israeli inquiry stated that the government had rushed to war in Lebanon without proper planning; it also said that Israeli society had grown complacent and unprepared for wars. Many believed that the inconclusive war had served to cement ties between many of Israel's enemies. Demands for Olmert's resignation increased after the report was issued, but he refused to step down. His government survived several no-confidence votes in May. Peretz, however, was forced to step down as Labor party leader and defense minister. His successor as party leader, former prime minister Peres, became president of Israel on July 15.
Hamas and Fatah had formed a short-lived new coalition government on Mar. 17, 2007. This coalition collapsed in June, when Hamas militarily seized control of the Gaza Strip and Abbas unilaterally installed a new Fatah-controlled government on the West Bank. In an effort to encourage Palestinian support for the more moderate Abbas, Israel resumed the transfer of tax moneys it collected for the PNA, which it had frozen after the Hamas electoral victory. The United States and the European Union also lifted their embargoes against the West Bank. A number of Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails. Israel also granted immunity to some militants of the Fatah-affiliated Al Askia Martyrs Brigades who transferred their weapons to the PNA. Olmert and Abbas held their first talks on Palestinian territory on August 6, in the city of Jericho. Although Palestinian negotiators indicated that they were ready to cede parts of the West Bank to Israel in exchange for an equal amount of territory, little of progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state was made. Nevertheless, the reinvolved United States hosted a peace conference on the issue in Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 27, 2007.
In a shadowy development apparently linked to fears of regional nuclear proliferation, Israeli planes bombed a building in the Syrian desert on Sept. 6, 2007. Initially, Israel refused to admit that it had even carried out the raid on what some believed was a nuclear reactor in the early stages of construction. Syria continued to say that it had no plans to build a nuclear reactor. The facility bore some resemblance to North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility, but North Korea denied its involvement in the project. In any case, Syria rapidly dismantled the facility.
Meanwhile, Israel again sealed its border with the Gaza Strip in response to increased rocket attacks on Israel. (The border with Egypt had been closed since the Hamas takeover of the area.) On Jan. 23, 2008, however, Israel's efforts to isolate Hamas came to a dramatic end. Hamas militants ended the blockade by blowing holes in the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Thousands of desperate Palestinians poured into Egypt to purchase much-needed supplies. The crisis was ended through negotiations between Hamas and Egypt 12 days later. On February 6, Israel announced plans to seal off its border with Egypt in the Sinai, to prevent Palestinian militants from entering Israel from this direction. Two days earlier, it had experienced its first suicide bombing in more than a year, at the southern desert town of Dimona. Hamas claimed responsibility, although the bombers had come from the West Bank. It thus became increasingly clear that Hamas could not easily be defeated or ignored. This immensely complicated efforts to restart the peace process.
Yehuda Karmon and Don Peretz
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