After half a century of war and hostility, peace with the Palestinians seems as remote as ever
Israel can be considered to have four main geographical regions. To the north is a hilly region that includes the hills of Galilee and extends down through the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Along the Mediterranean coast there is a narrow plain that is home to most of the country's commerce and population. The border in the north-east is formed by the valley of the river Jordan which flows south into the Dead Sea—the lowest point on earth—and the same fissure continues south to the Gulf of Aqaba. Most of the south is the Negev Desert.
The state of Israel was established in what was formerly Palestine in 1948 as a Jewish homeland and has since attracted immigrants from almost every country. Now the population is three-quarters Jewish, of whom more than half are native-born and the remainder immigrants. Immigration accelerated after 1989 with the arrival of more than 800,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union. Around one-quarter are descendants of the original Arab population—who are typically the poorest people. In addition there are hundreds of thousands of temporary migrant workers from Eastern Europe and Asia.
The Jewish population is usually divided into two groups. First there are those of European and North American origin—the Ashkenazim—who tend to be richer. Second are those from North Africa and the Middle East—the Sephardim or Misrahi—who form most of the working class. But there are many other distinctions, principally between secular and religious Jews.
Israelis have generally good standards of health and are also highly educated. About one-fifth of immigrants are professionals. Israel has the highest proportion of scientists and engineers per capita in the world.
Over its lifetime, Israel has shifted from a simple agricultural society to an export-driven high-tech industrial economy—particularly during the 1990s, with the influx of new professionals and the establishment of communications technology and software enterprises concentrated around Tel Aviv.
Israel has high-tech farms that work with little water
Israel also has high-tech agriculture which has to make sophisticated use of limited water resources. As well as being self-sufficient in food, Israel is a major exporter of citrus and other fruits. Most farming, reflecting the country's socialist origins, is still organized by kibbutzim (collectives) or moshavim (cooperatives). Although fairly efficient, their survival still depends on cheap supplies of water and subsidies and many are now heavily in debt.
Israel's Zionist and socialist origins have also influenced its politics, which have largely been dominated by the Labour Party—though now more a liberal party. Labour was for decades the majority ruling party, but was dislodged in 1977 by the conservative Likud. Since the mid-1980s, neither has had a majority and each has had to govern in coalition with a plethora of smaller religious parties.
Throughout its existence, Israel's governments have been embroiled in conflicts with their Arab neighbours, most notably in the six-day war of 1967 as a result of which Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The status of these territories has been disputed ever since. Generally, Likud and the orthodox religious parties have wanted to keep them—and encouraged Jewish settlements there—while Labour has been more equivocal.