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January 2006



Israel is located in the Middle East, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt to the West, and Syria and Jordan to the East. Israel covers an area of 20,330 sq. km.(7,850 sq. mi.) and is about the size of New Jersey. Jerusalem is the capital city; other cities include Tel Aviv and Haifa. The varying terrain consists of plains, mountains, desert, and coastline. The climate is temperate, except in desert areas.

Based on a November 2003 estimate, the population of Israel is 6.7 million. Ethnic distribution is 80.1% Jews (slightly less than 5 million), and 19.9% non-Jews, mostly Arab, (approximately 1.3 million). Official languages are Hebrew and Arabic; other languages include English and Russian. The three broad Jewish groupings are the Ashkenazim, or Jews who trace their ancestry to western, central, and eastern Europe; the Sephardim, who trace their origin to Spain, Portugal, southern Europe, and North Africa; and Eastern or Oriental Jews, who descend from ancient communities in Islamic lands. Of the non-Jewish population, about 73% are Muslims, about 10.5% are Christian, and under 10% are Druze.

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 was preceded by more than 50 years of efforts by Zionist leaders to establish a sovereign nation as a homeland for Jews. The desire of Jews to return to what they consider their rightful homeland was first expressed during the Babylonian exile and became a universal Jewish theme after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the dispersal that followed. It was not until the founding of the Zionist movement by Theodore Herzl at the end of the 19th century that practical steps were taken toward securing international sanction for large-scale Jewish settlement in Palestine--then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, but the United States, as well as most other countries, maintains its Embassy in Tel Aviv. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are Israeli-occupied with current status subject to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, permanent status to be determined through further negotiation.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy. Its governmental system is based on several basic laws enacted by its unicameral parliament, the Knesset. The president (chief of state), currently Moshe Katsav, is elected by the Knesset for a 5-year term. The prime minister (head of government), currently Ariel Sharon, exercises executive power and has in the past been selected by the president as the party leader most able to form a government. A total of 12 parties are represented in the 16th Knesset, elected January 2003.

Israel has a diversified modern economy with substantial government ownership and a rapidly developing high-tech sector. Poor in natural resources, Israel depends on imports of oil, coal, food, uncut diamonds, other production inputs, and military equipment. Its GDP in 1997 reached $98 billion, or $16,800 per person. The major industrial sectors include metal products, electronic and biomedical equipment, processed foods, chemicals, and transport equipment. Israel possesses a substantial service sector and is one of the world's centers for diamond cutting and polishing. It is also a world leader in software development and is a major tourist destination.

CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Department Background Notes, 11/2005, 9/2004