Israel is both a land and a people. The history of the Jewish people and its roots in the Land of Israel, spans some 35-centuries. In this land, its cultural, national and religious identity was formed; here, its physical presence has been maintained and unbroken throughout the centuries, even after the majority was forced into exile. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish independence - lost almost 2,000 years earlier - was reestablished.
Politics and Government
Israel operates under a parliamentary system as a democratic republic with universal suffrage. The President of Israel is the head of state, the duties of which are limited and largely ceremonial. A Parliament Member supported by a majority in Parliament becomes the Prime Minister - usually the chairman of the largest party. The Prime Minister is the head of government and head of the Cabinet. Israel is governed by a 120-member parliament, known as the Knesset. Membership of the Knesset is based on proportional representation of political parties,with a 2% electoral threshold, which commonly results in coalition governments. Parliamentary elections are scheduled every four years, but unstable coalitions or a no-confidence vote by the Knesset often dissolves governments earlier. "The average life span of an Israeli government is 22 months. The peace process, the role of religion in the state, and political scandals have caused coalitions to break apart or produced early elections." The Basic Laws of Israel function as an unwritten constitution. In 2003, the Knesset began to draft an official constitution based on these laws.
Israel is located in the Middle East, along the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. It lies at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.
Long and narrow in shape, the country is about 290 miles (470 km.) in length and 85 miles (135 km.) in width at its widest point.
Although small in size, Israel encompasses the varied topographical features of an entire continent, ranging from forested highlands and fertile green valleys to mountainous deserts, and from the coastal plain to the semitropical Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Approximately half of the country's land area is semi-arid.
Israel's climate is characterized by much sunshine, with a rainy season from November to April. Total annual precipitation ranges from 20-30 inches (50-70 cm.) in the north to about an inch (2.5 cm.) in the far south. Regional climatic conditions vary considerably: hot, humid summers and mild, wet winters on the coastal plain; dry, warm summers and moderately cold winters, with rain and occasional light snow, in the hill regions; hot, dry summers and pleasant winters in the Jordan Valley; and semi-arid conditions, with warm to hot days and cool nights, in the south.
Flora and Fauna
The rich variety of Israel's plant and animal life reflects its geographical location as well as its varied topography and climate. Over 500 kinds of birds, some 200 mammal and reptile species, and 2,600 plant types (150 of which are endemic to Israel) are found within its borders. Over 150 nature reserves and 65 national parks, encompassing nearly 400 square miles (almost 1,000 sq. km.) have been established throughout the country.
The scarcity of water in the region has generated intense efforts to maximize use of the available supply and to seek new resources. In the 1960s, Israel's freshwater sources were joined in an integrated grid whose main artery, the National Water Carrier, brings water from the north and center to the semi-arid south. Ongoing projects for utilizing new sources include cloud seeding, recycling of sewage water and the desalination of seawater.
Israel is a country of immigrants. Since its inception in 1948, Israel's population has grown almost ten-fold. Its 7.4 million inhabitants comprise a mosaic of people with varied ethnic backgrounds, lifestyles, religions, cultures and traditions. Today Jews comprise some 75.6% of the country's population, while the country's non-Jewish citizens, mostly Arabs, number about 24.2%.
About 90% of Israel's inhabitants live in some 200 urban centers, some of which are located on ancient historical sites. About 5% are members of unique rural cooperative settlements - the kibbutz and the moshav.
Jerusalem, Israel's capital (population 747,600), has stood at the center of the Jewish people's national and spiritual life since King David made it the capital of his kingdom some 3000 years ago. Today it is a flourishing, vibrant metropolis, the seat of the government and Israel's largest city.
Tel Aviv-Yafo (population 390,100), which was founded in 1909 as the first Jewish city in modern times, is today the center of the country's industrial, commercial, financial and cultural life.
Haifa (population 264,900), a known coastal town since ancient times, is a major Mediterranean port and the industrial and commercial center of northern Israel.
Be'er Sheva (population 184,500), named in the Bible as an encampment of the patriarchs, is today the largest urban center in the south. It provides administrative, economic, health, education and cultural services for the entire southern region.
Israel maintains diplomatic relations with 161 countries and has 94 diplomatic missions around the world. Only three members of the Arab League have normalized relations with Israel; Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties in 1979 and 1994, respectively, and Mauritania opted for full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999. Two other members of the Arab League, Morocco and Tunisia, which had some diplomatic relations with Israel, severed them at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000. Since 2003, ties with Morocco have been improved, and Israel's foreign minister has visited the country.
As a result of the 2009 Gaza War, Mauritania, Qatar, Bolivia, and Venezuela suspended political and economical ties with Israel. Under Israeli law, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen are enemy countries and Israeli citizens may not visit them without permission from the Ministry of the Interior. Since 1995, Israel has been a member of the Mediterranean Dialogue, which fosters cooperation between seven countries in the Mediterranean Basin and the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Shimon Peres, current President of Israel, greeted by U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. Foreign relations with United States, Germany, and India are among Israel's strongest.
The United States was the first country to recognize the State of Israel, followed by the Soviet Union. The United States may regard Israel as its primary ally in the Middle East, based on "common democratic values, religious affinities, and security interests".Their bilateral relations are multidimensional and the United States is the principal proponent of the Arab-Israeli peace process. U.S. and Israeli views differ on some issues, such as the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, and settlements. India established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992 and has fostered a strong military, technological and cultural partnership with the country since then. One study revealed that India was the most pro-Israel nation in the world. India is the largest customer of Israeli military equipment and Israel is the second-largest military partner of India after the Russian Federation. India is also the second-largest Asian economic partner of Israel and the two countries enjoy extensive space technology ties.
Germany's strong ties with Israel include cooperation on scientific and educational endeavors and the two states remain strong economic and military partners. Under the reparations agreement, as of 2007 Germany had paid 25 billion euros in reparations to the Israeli state and individual Israeli holocaust survivors. The UK has kept full diplomatic relations with Israel since its formation having had two visits from heads of state in 2007. Relations between the two countries were also made stronger by former prime minister Tony Blair's efforts for a two state resolution. The UK is seen as having a "natural" relationship with Israel on account of the British Mandate for Palestine. Iran had diplomatic relations with Israel under the Pahlavi dynasty but withdrew its recognition of Israel during the Iranian Revolution.
Although Turkey and Israel did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1991, Turkey has cooperated with the State since its recognition of Israel in 1949. Turkey's ties to the other Muslim-majority nations in the region have at times resulted in pressure from Arab and Muslim states to temper its relationship with Israel. Relations between Turkey and Israel took a downturn after the Gaza War and Israel's raid of the Gaza flotilla which killed 8 Turkish and 1 American IHH members. IHH, which organized the flotilla, is a Turkish charity that some believe has ties to Hamas and Al-Qaeda.
In Africa, Ethiopia is Israel's main and closest ally in the continent due to common political, religious and security interests. Israel provides expertise to Ethiopia on irrigation projects and thousands of Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) live in Israel. Law
Israel has a three-tier court system. At the lowest level are magistrate courts, situated in most cities across the country. Above them are district courts, serving both as appellate courts and courts of first instance; they are situated in five of Israel's six districts. The third and highest tier in Israel is the Supreme Court, seated in Jerusalem. It serves a dual role as the highest court of appeals and the High Court of Justice. In the latter role, the Supreme Court rules as a court of first instance, allowing individuals, both citizens and non-citizens, to petition against decisions of state authorities. Although Israel supports the goals of the International Criminal Court, it has not ratified the Rome Statute, citing concerns about the ability of the court to remain free from political impartiality.
In addition to the three-tier court system described above (also known as the "General Court system") Israel has also a system of specialized Labour Courts, similar to those found in Continental Europe. The Labour Courts have unique jurisdiction over labour matters (both on the individual and collective spheres) as well as social welfare matters (e.g. law suits related to pensions, social security benefits, healthcare, etc.). Each one of the five judicial districts has one Regional Labour Court which serves as a first instance court for those matters described above.
Most matters in Labour Courts are adjudicated by a three-panel consisting of one professional judge, and two lay representatives nominated to the court with the consent of the largest employees and employers unions (one representative termed as "Employees Representative" and the other as "Employers Representative"). Some matters (e.g. criminal cases related to labour law) are adjudicated by a professional judge only. The National Labour Court, situated in Jerusalem, serves as an appeal court as well as a first-instance court for matters with national importance (e.g. collective bargaining disputes, on a national level, between employees and employers unions).
Israel's legal system combines English common law, civil law, and Jewish law.It is based on the principle of stare decisis (precedent) and is an adversarial system, where the parties in the suit bring evidence before the court. Court cases are decided by professional judges rather than juries. Marriage and divorce are under the jurisdiction of the religious courts: Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian. A committee of Knesset members, Supreme Court justices, and Israeli Bar members carries out the election of judges.
Administration of Israel's courts (both the "General" courts and the Labor Courts) is carried by the Administration of Courts, situated in Jerusalem. It is to be noted that both the General and Labor courts are paperless courts, i.e. storage of court files, as well as court decisions, are carried out electronically. Israel's Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty seeks to defend human rights and liberties in Israel. Israel is the only country in the region ranked "Free" by Freedom House based on the level of civil liberties and political rights; the "Israeli Occupied Territories/Palestinian Authority" was ranked "Not Free."
In 2010, Israel was also the only country in the Middle East to be ranked "free" by Freedom House's "Freedom of the Press report, ranking the highest in the region.Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have often disapproved of Israel's human rights record in regards to the Arab–Israeli conflict. Israel's civil liberties also allow for self-criticism, from groups such as B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.
Education and Science
School attendance is mandatory from age five, and free through age 18. Almost all three- and four-year-olds attend some kind of preschool program.
Israel's institutions of higher education include universities, offering a wide range of subjects in science and humanities, and serving as research institutions of worldwide repute, colleges offering academic courses and vocational schools. The country's high level of scientific research and development and the application of R&D compensate for the country's lack of natural resources.
The National Health Insurance Law, in effect from January 1995, provides for a standardized basket of medical services, including hospitalization, for all residents of Israel. All medical services continue to be supplied by the country's four health care organizations.
Life expectancy is 82.2 years for women and 78.5 years for men; the infant mortality rate is 3.9 per 1,000 live births. The ratio of physicians to population and the number of specialists compare favorably with those in most developed countries.
The social service system is based on legislation which provides for workers' protection and a broad range of national and community services, including care of the elderly, assistance for single parents, programs for children and youth, adoption agencies, as well as prevention and treatment of alcoholism and drug abuse.
The National Insurance Institute provides all permanent residents (including non-citizens) with a broad range of benefits, including unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, survivors' benefits, maternity grants and allowances, child allowances, income support payments and more.
Israel is considered one of the most advanced countries in Southwest Asia in economic and industrial development. In 2010, it joined the OECD.
The country is ranked 3rd in the region on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index as well as in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report. It has the second-largest number of startup companies in the world (after the United States) and the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside North America.
An IAI Galaxy G200 transcontinental business jet, designed and produced by Israel Aircraft Industries. In 2009, Israel had the 49th-highest gross domestic product and 29th-highest gross domestic product per capita (at purchasing power parity) at $206.4 billion and $28,393, respectively. The New Israeli Shekel is one of 17 freely convertible currencies according to the CLS list.
In 2010, Israel ranked 17th among of the world's most economically developed nations, according to IMD's World Competitiveness Yearbook. The Israeli economy was ranked first as the world's most durable economy in the face of crises, and was also ranked first in the rate of research and development center investments.
The Bank of Israel was ranked first among central banks for its efficient functioning, up from the 8th place in 2009. Israel was also ranked as the worldwide leader in its supply of skilled manpower. Despite limited natural resources, intensive development of the agricultural and industrial sectors over the past decades has made Israel largely self-sufficient in food production, apart from grains and beef. Other major imports to Israel, totaling $47.8 billion in 2006, include fossil fuels, raw materials, and military equipment. Leading exports include fruits, vegetables, pharmaceuticals, software, chemicals, military technology, and diamonds; in 2006, Israeli exports reached $42.86 billion.
Israel is a global leader in water conservation and geothermal energy, and its development of cutting-edge technologies in software, communications and the life sciences have evoked comparisons with Silicon Valley. Intel and Microsoft built their first overseas research and development centers in Israel, and other high-tech multi-national corporations, such as IBM, Cisco Systems, and Motorola, have opened facilities in the country. In July 2007, U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought an Israeli company Iscar, its first non-U.S. acquisition, for $4 billion. Since the 1970s, Israel has received economic and military aid from the United States, whose loans account for the bulk of Israel's external debt.
(Central Bureau of Statistics 2008)
GDP $188 billion ($26,200 per capita) Exports, goods and services $46.0 billion Imports, goods and services $55.0 billion
Israel's industry concentrates on manufacturing products with a high added value that are primarily based on technological innovation. These include medical electronics, agrotechnology, telecommunications, computer hardware and software, solar energy, food processing and fine chemicals.
Israel's agricultural successes are the result of a long struggle against harsh, adverse conditions and of making maximum use of scarce water and arable land. Today, agriculture represents some 2.4% of GNP and 2% of exports. Israel produces 93% of its own food requirements, supplemented by imports of grain, oil seeds, meat, coffee, cocoa and sugar, which are more than offset by the wide range of agricultural products for export.
Trade is conducted with countries on six continents. Some 54% of imports and 33% of exports are with Europe, boosted by Israel's free trade agreement with the EU (concluded in 1975). A similar agreement was signed with the United States (1985), whose trade with Israel accounts for 17% of Israel's imports and 40% of its exports.
Thousands of years of history, the ingathering of the Jews from over 70 countries, a society of multi-ethnic communities living side by side, and an unending flow of international input via satellite and cable have contributed to the development of an Israeli culture which reflects worldwide elements while striving for an identity of its own. Cultural expression through the arts is as varied as the people themselves, with literature, theater, concerts, radio and television programming, entertainment, museums and galleries for every interest and taste.
The official languages of the country are Hebrew and Arabic, but in the country's streets many other languages can be heard. Hebrew, the language of the Bible, long restricted to liturgy and literature, was revived a century ago, accompanying the renewal of Jewish life in the Land.