The State of Israel was established in 1948, but its roots extend much further back in time. The idea of a separate state for the Jews emerged in Europe in the late 1800s, in response to rising anti-Semitism and nationalism there. The Jewish nationalism that propelled the establishment of Israel is called Zionism. The years after 1948 have been turbulent years for the Jewish state. The country’s history has been marked by the fact that from the very beginning, Israel has been in direct conflict with the Palestinians and fought several wars against its Arab neighboring states.
In 1967, Israel conquered significant territory from Egypt, Syria and Jordan. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Israel. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered by the international community as occupied by the Palestinians. The Israeli occupation contravenes international international law. Large parts of Israeli politics and social life, domestic and foreign, are affected to some extent by this long-standing conflict with the Palestinians. Despite all the wars and conflicts, Israel has also succeeded in establishing and maintaining the state-supporting institutions and structures that make Israel the democratic republic it is today.
A state born in war
The State of Israel was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948. The following day, the Arab neighboring countries declared war on the new Jewish state.
The Palestine War in 1948-1949
The war of 1948 changed the boundaries and demographics of the new state. The area that was under Israel’s control at the end of the war was 22 percent larger than what the United Nations division plan had announced to the Jewish state. In addition, Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt Gaza Strip – both areas that were intended for the independent Arab state. As a result of the war, some 750,000 Palestinians were also displaced.
In 1949, a number of ceasefire agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were signed. No political peace agreement was ever negotiated. Therefore, despite the ceasefire agreements, the next few years were characterized by unrest and strife along Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan respectively. The Arab countries had also introduced a financial boycott against the Jewish state. The boycott came in the company of fierce hate rhetoric, and among Israeli leaders it seemed obvious that at some point it would break out a new war.
The Suez crisis of 1956
The second Arab-Israeli war came in 1956, also known as the Suez crisis. This war was far more of a regional war than the first. Now the European superpowers France and Britain were also involved as Israel’s secret allies. The great powers shared Israel’s fear of General Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. In their attempt to get rid of him, the three agreed that Israel should attack, and then the two great powers would come to the rescue. But it did not go as the three allies had planned. On November 7, 1956, the UN Security Council approved a ceasefire and demanded full Israeli withdrawal.
The Six Day War of 1967
In the wake of the Suez crisis, the world’s first peacekeeping UN force – the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was established and sent to Sinai. The force was in Sinai until President Nasser threw it out in May 1967. This was part of the run-up to the third Arab-Israeli war in June 1967. The war lasted only six days and represents a watershed in the history of Israel. Israel conquered Sinai to the Suez Canal and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The conquest of the country was the start of Israel’s settlement project, one of the foremost fighting issues in the so-called the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War
In Israel, the period after the 1967 war was marked by the so-called “war of exhaustion” against Egypt. In 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli war began on Judaism’s most important and holiest day; Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement. The war in 1973 came to an end when Israel and Egypt negotiated two so-called framework agreements at Camp David in the United States in September 1978.
The wars in Lebanon
In 1978 and 1982 Israel was involved in two wars, both in Lebanon, the neighboring country that was undergoing a raging civil war. The 1982 war in Lebanon became costly to Israel, both materially and in loss of human life. The country also faced international condemnation, not least because of their role during the massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. There was also growing resistance within Israel, even in the Israeli defense. These popular protests inside Israel represented something completely new in Israeli society. More than 40,000 people took part in anti-war demonstrations in Tel Aviv’s streets.
Lebanon continued to influence Israel’s foreign and defense policy, and after several rounds of conflict with Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, 18 years after the country’s first invasion. Although Israeli troops withdrew, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is not over. The border between southern Lebanon and northern Israel has been characterized by relative stability in the period since the withdrawal. Occasionally, this is punctured by riots and acts of violence. In 2006, it resulted in yet another war between Israel and Hezbollah.
The conflict with the Palestinians
Since the establishment of the state in 1948, Israel has been in constant conflict with its closest neighbors, the Palestinians. It was only after 1967 that this conflict turned away from the Israeli-Arab, into an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the heart of today’s conflict has been there since 1967, and is the unlawful occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank including East Jerusalem. But in addition to this, one of the far-reaching negative consequences of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 – the Palestinian refugee problem – is a major part of today’s conflict picture. The protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has on several occasions resulted in dramatic acts of violence and wars. The two Palestinian intifadas, in 1987 and 2000, in addition to several Israeli military operations on the Palestinian Gaza Strip, are some of the most prominent examples of this.
Israel is an immigrant community and can therefore be described as an ethnic quilt.
By 1940, after the first five waves of immigration – aliyah – to Palestine, the Jewish population of the area had reached 450,000. After World War II, immigration accelerated. So far, it was mainly Jews from Europe, Russia and the United States who had come to the area. This changed in the period following the establishment of the state. In the wake of the Holocaust, the “gathering” of the world’s Jews became among the Zionists and the most important tasks of the Israeli authorities. The Declaration of Independence stated that the new state would “open the gates” to the “homeland” of all the Jews of the world. This was enshrined in law in 1950, when the so-called “Return Act” was passed. The law gives every Jew the right to immigrate and gain Israeli citizenship.
During the first half of the state’s establishment, around 100,000 Jews came to Israel, most of them survivors of the Nazi persecution in Europe. During the first three years, the Jewish population doubled. In addition, a large number of (non-Jewish) Palestinians lived in the area when the state was created in 1948. The dividing line between Jews and non-Jews continues to influence Israeli politics and social life.
Another central dividing line in Israeli politics and social life is between Israelis of European descent (Ashkenazim), versus those from the Middle East and North Africa (Mizrahim). In addition to immigration from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, Israel has large immigrant groups of Russian and Ethiopian Jews, respectively. Thus, Jewish immigrants came to Israel from all over the world, and ever since the establishment of the state, one of the great challenges of the authorities has been to merge these various population groups into an Israeli identity.
Israel has been a republic of parliamentary form since 1948. David Ben-Gurion became the country’s first prime minister in 1948 in a provisional government, and the first elections to the national assembly Knesset were held in January 1949.
Ben-Gurion was a ruthless figure in Israel’s early history, and his party, the Israeli labor party Mapai, was the dominant party in Israel’s first three decades. From the same party also came prominent political figures such as Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Israel’s first (and so far) only female prime minister, Golda Meir.
Meir’s second prime ministerial term ran until the fall of 1973. The election was scheduled for October 30, 1973, but the war that surprised Israel on October 6 put an effective end to it. In the aftermath of the war, it was not surprising that the authorities’ handling of who became the major theme of the election campaign. The Agranat Commission’s conclusions regarding the authorities’ mistakes in the run-up to the war were also marked by the election result. Meir’s new government was thus disbanded just four months after it was formed.
With Meir’s fall from power, it was the canvas for the working party’s crown prince, Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin formed a new government, but he had at least as much governance problems as his predecessor. The country’s economic situation was also very demanding. Increasing inflation had pushed the Israeli economy into a dramatic recession. When a few years later, Rabin was hit by a personal corruption case, the scene was clear to Shimon Peres, also considered one of the big stars of the Labor Party. But the Labor Party’s hitherto firm grip on Israeli politics was loosening.
The country’s other dominant party is Likud. The poor handling of the war in 1973 and the financial problems in the wake of the war gave the Likud leadership the opening they had been waiting for for several years. In 1977, Likud flipped the Labor Party for the first time from the throne as Israel’s ruling party, in what in Israeli history is referred to as the “revolution” (haMahapach). Likud formed government with Menachem Begin as prime minister. In 1981 they won again. When Begin resigned as prime minister in 1983, Yitzhak Shamir took over as Likud leader and formed a new government.
The Labor Party’s loss and Likud’s triumph were also a result of the Israeli identity that Ben-Gurion and the labor movement had worked so purposefully to cultivate, marginalized and alienated large parts of the Israeli population that had come to the country from the Middle East and North Africa (mizrahim). It was Askhenazim who had dominated in the early waves of immigration, and so they had managed to make a significant mark on the state even before it was created. However, with the large wave of immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, the country’s demographic composition had changed. By 1960, Jews from the Middle East and North Africa had grown from 15 percent to over 50 percent of Israel’s total population.
In other words, the right-hand side had room for those who were pushed out into the cold when the Mapai/labor movement consolidated its position in the 1930s and 1940s, the religious ones who did not feel protected by the secular Zionists and, not least, the Mizrahim. 70 percent of the party’s votes came from this population group.
Since 1977, the two largest parties have alternated to form government and have led various national unity governments. Both have been weakened by declining support and have been dependent on support from various parties. For a long time, this has weakened the parliamentary foundation and the government’s governance. But Likud’s job was as demanding as the Labor Party. New wars (Lebanon in 1982) and increased financial difficulties also created new challenges.
More parties are coming
The 1984 election brought a new entrant on the field, challenging Likud’s grip on the Mizrakhim voters: the Shas party was established with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as its spiritual leader and Arie Deri as political front figure. Ethnic parties were nothing new per se, but this was the first time a party had relied on speaking on behalf of all the Mizrakhim. Parallel to the emergence of the Shas, the period from 1983 was marked by an almost dead run between Mapai and Likud. Neither party gathered enough votes to form a stable government alone. The solution in 1984 became yet another national unity government where both Likud and Mapai were included. The period when the major parties dominated Israeli politics was finally over.
The Palestinian intifada in 1987 reinforced the polarizing tendency. Combined with declining support for the major parties, this resulted in an ever-increasing fragmentation of Israeli politics. In 1988, 27 parties ran for elections in Israel.
In 1990, the national unity government led by Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir collapsed, and new elections were scheduled for 1992. The 1992 election brought the Labor Party back into its leadership, and Rabin became the country’s prime minister. From that position, he led the country through the peace talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and later with Jordan (the peace agreement was signed in 1994). The peace talks made Rabin a very controversial figure on the Israeli right.
Netanyahu to power
The period since 1977 has been marked by a strong polarization in Israeli politics. The killing of Prime Minister Rabin on November 4, 1995 has been left as a bloody example of this. When Rabin was killed, Knesset asked Shimon Peres to form a new government. Peres ruled the country until the May 1996 elections, a brief prime ministerial period marked by setbacks in the peace process and military invasion of Lebanon. In 1996, Peres lost to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s first prime ministerial term lasted until 1999 when he lost the election to the Labor Party’s Ehud Barak. Netanyahu’s replacement as Likud leader became the man who was deprived of the post of defense minister after the 1982 Lebanon War investigation, Ariel Sharon. Both the election that Peres lost in 1996, and the subsequent election in 1999, were held as two separate elections – one direct prime ministerial election and one ordinary party election. The election round was an attempt to make Israeli prime ministers more capable, but paradoxically made the situation even more difficult for both Netanyahu in 1996 and Barak in 1999.
The peace process with the Palestinians
The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a decade of active peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. In April 1991, Israel agreed to a US proposal for a regional peace conference, which opened in Madrid in October 1991, also with Palestinian representatives (who participated in the Jordanian delegation).
The big breakthrough in the peace talks, on the other hand, came as a result of the direct contact between Israel and the PLO established in the so-called Oslo Canal ; a series of secret meetings held in Norway. The Oslo negotiations led Israel and the PLO to sign an agreement on September 13, 1993, in Washington DC, which included mutual recognition. The agreement was a declaration of principle that, after Israeli withdrawal, was to lay the foundation for a temporary and limited Palestinian autonomy in parts of the Palestinian territories Israel had occupied from 1967; primarily the Gaza and Jericho area.
In October 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty, while similar talks with Syria were withdrawn due to disagreement over Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. A new round of negotiations was initiated in the United States at the turn of the year 1995/1996. Further negotiations with the PLO continued in various forums, although the PLO as well as other Arab parties for a period withdrew from the peace process after a Jewish settler killed 30 Palestinians at a mosque in Hebron on February 25, 1994.
In April, Israel and the PLO signed a detailed agreement on the transfer of authority in Gaza and the Jericho area. After Israeli withdrawal took the Palestinian Authority over control on 17 May 1994. 1 July turned PLO leader Yasir Arafat returned to Gaza and Palestinian soil for the first time in 25 years and established the management of the Palestinian Authority, Palestine National Authority (PNA), in Jericho.
The agreement also stipulated elections for a Palestinian council in 1994, but did not address difficult issues such as Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. In 1994, PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in this peace process. One year later, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was attacked and killed by a Jewish terrorist after attending a peace demonstration in downtown Tel Aviv. The killing of Rabin shook Israeli society, helped to further polarize the political debate, and made the difficult peace process even worse.
In addition to the assassination of Rabin, the peace process was affected by several terrorist attacks launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of whom opposed the PLO’s peace policy and have significant support, not least on the Gaza Strip.
During Netanyahu’s reign in the period 1996–1999, the peace process stopped completely. The Jewish settlement in the occupied territories increased, and there were confrontations in several places. Particularly strong were the reactions to the new building in Har Homa in South Jerusalem in 1997. At the same time, the government hesitated to fulfill the obligations in the peace agreement with the transfer of territories in the West Bank to the Palestinians. The Israeli government repeatedly threatened to interrupt the peace process following various terrorist attacks. Netanyahu’s uncompromising policy led the Israeli government to come under pressure from several of its closest allies, especially the United States and the EU.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton intervened in the conflict, and in October Netanyahu and Arafat met for talks with President Clinton at the Wye River in Maryland, USA. These ended in a memorandum known as the Wye Agreement, which set up a timetable for final implementation of previously concluded agreements, but gave little concrete progress.
As prime minister, Ehud Barak met Yasser Arafat for the first time in July 1999. In September of that year, a new agreement (the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement) was signed, with a revised timetable for the Wye agreement. The meeting in the Egyptian city was to prepare the ground for future discussions on a “final status” between Israel and a future Palestine.
In July 2000, Camp David met with a new round of negotiations for a final deal, with President Clinton as host and broker. After two weeks, the negotiations at Camp David ended without the parties having reached an agreement. In particular, it was the question of the future status of Jerusalem that prevented an agreement, and in particular the question of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return home, and the final borders of a Palestinian state. The Camp David negotiations are often referred to as the final nail in the coffers of the Oslo Accords. The frustrations over the failed peace process gave rise to a new spiral of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories called the Second Intifada.