Modern Israel dates from the end of World War I and the resulting defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Based on the secret wartime Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France to partition Turkish Middle Eastern territory, France was to secure control of Lebanon and Syria, with Britain receiving Palestine and Iraq. Following the Allied victory, the Paris Peace Conference awarded these areas as mandates under the new League of Nations, envisioning their ultimate independence.
The war also prompted the Zionist movement of Jews seeking a nation-state in Palestine. In order to enlist the support of international Jewry during the war effort, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The declaration announced London's support for the creation of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine. The parameters of this home were not spelled out. In 1922 Britain split Palestine into Transjordan east of the Jordan River and Palestine to the west. The Jewish homeland would be in Palestine. There were several schemes for achieving this while balancing the interests of the Arab population with those of the Jewish minority and the goals of the Zionist movement. Contradictory British assurances to both sides failed to satisfy either the Zionists or the Arabs, however. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of European Jews arrived in Palestine and purchased land there, leading to Arab-Jewish rioting that the British authorities were not always able to control.
Events immediately before and during World War II accelerated the Jewish migration to Palestine. Adolf Hitler's persecution of the Jews in Germany as well as anti-Semitism in Poland and elsewhere led to increasing Jewish migration and interest in a Jewish state. Once the war began, Hitler embarked on a conscientious effort to exterminate world Jewry. During the Nazi-inspired Holocaust an estimated 6 million Jews perished. Late in the war and afterward, many of the survivors sought to immigrate to Israel. The great lesson of World War II for Jews was that they could not rely on other nations; they would require their own independent state. The Holocaust also created in the West a sense of moral obligation for the creation of such a state. At the same time, however, the Arabs of Palestine were adamantly opposed to the implantation of a large foreign population in their midst.
After World War II, Jewish refugees and displaced persons streamed into Palestine, many of them only to be turned away by British naval ships patrolling Palestine's Mediterranean coast just for this purpose. At the same time, the British authorities wrestled with partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Jews and Arabs proved intransigent, and in February 1947 after both rejected a final proposal for partition, Britain turned the problem over to the United Nations (UN). In November the UN General Assembly passed its own resolution to partition Palestine, with Jerusalem to be under a UN trusteeship. While the Jews accepted this arrangement, the Arabs rejected it.
In December 1945 the Arab League council announced that it would halt the creation of a Jewish state by force. The Arabs then began raids against Jewish communities in Palestine. The United States, with the world's largest and wealthiest Jewish population, became the chief champion and most reliable ally of the Jews. This position would, however, cost the United States dearly in its relations with the Arab world and would also influence Cold War geopolitics.
In January 1948 London announced its intention to withdraw from Palestine. This precipitous British policy led to war. The British completed the pullout on 14 May 1948, and that same day David Ben-Gurion, executive chairman and defense minister of the Jewish Agency, declared the existence of the independent Jewish state of Israel. Ben-Gurion became the first prime minister, a post he held during 1948–1953 and 1955–1963.
At first, the interests of the United States and those of the Soviet Union regarding the Jewish state converged. U.S. recognition of Israel came only shortly before that of the Soviet Union. Officials in Moscow found common ground with the Jews in their suffering at the hands of the Nazis in the war and also identified with the socialism espoused by the early Jewish settlers in Palestine as well as with their anti-British stance. The Cold War, the reemergence of official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and Moscow's desire to court the Arab states by supporting Arab nationalism against the West would soon change all that.
The Israeli independence proclamation led immediately to fighting. In the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948–1949, hard-pressed Israeli forces managed to stave off the far more numerous and better-equipped but poorly organized and inadequately trained Arab forces. In the process, many Palestinians living in Israel either fled or were forced out of the territory.
Soviet military support for Egypt and Syria led to increased U.S. military support for Israel. The rise of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser only exacerbated the situation. Trumpeting Arab nationalism, Nasser blockaded Israeli ships in the Gulf of Aqaba and Israel's access to the Indian Ocean. Egypt also supported cross-border raids into Israeli territory by fedayeen, or guerrilla fighters. Nasser's turn to the Soviet Union for arms led to the withdrawal of U.S. support for his pet project of constructing a high dam at Aswan on the Nile. This led him to nationalize the Suez Canal. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was determined to topple Nasser, and a coalition of Britain, France, and Israel then formed. Leaders of the three states developed secret plans whereby Israel would invade Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and move to the canal. Britain and France would then use this as an excuse to introduce military forces into the canal zone.
At the end of October 1956, Israeli forces swept into the Sinai, easily destroying Egyptian forces there. When Nasser's response to French and British demands proved unsatisfactory, their forces also invaded Egypt from Cyprus. Although the Soviet Union threatened to send volunteers, it was the strong opposition of the United States and heavy economic pressure brought to bear on Britain that proved decisive. All three powers subsequently withdrew their forces, greatly strengthening Nasser despite the abysmal showing of his armed forces. Israel was one of the chief winners of the 1956 war. It had cleaned out the fedayeen bases and secured a buffer of UN observers in the Sinai. It also ended the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba.
The Soviet Union made good on Egyptian material losses from the war and, over the next decade, sent considerable quantities of additional arms to the Arab states, including Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. In May 1967, Nasser moved Egyptian troops into the Sinai and ordered out the UN observers who served as a buffer with Israel. Believing that they would soon be attacked, Israeli leaders ordered a preemptive strike. On 5 June 1967, the Israeli Air Force wiped out most of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground and then struck the Syrians. Although Israel made a bid for Jordan to stay out of the war, that country joined the fighting against Israel and paid a heavy price for it. The Israelis won the so-called Six-Day War and, in the process, seized the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank of the Jordan River along with Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
On 6 October 1973, at the start of the Jewish holy days of Yom Kippur, Egypt, now led by Anwar Sadat, launched a surprise attack on Israel. Joined by Syrian forces, the Egyptians caught the Israeli government of Prime Minister Golda Meier (1969–1974) by surprise and crossed over the Suez Canal, then took up defensive positions to destroy much of the counterattacking Israeli armor with Soviet-supplied antitank missiles. Ultimately, however, the Israelis beat back the Arab attacks. Having recrossed the canal, the Israelis were in position to drive on to Cairo. Both sides then agreed to a cease-fire.
Israel appeared menaced on all flanks except the Mediterranean. But in 1979 Sadat, dismayed by the inability of Washington to pressure Israel into concessions, took the unprecedented step of traveling to Israel in November 1977, eventually leading to the Camp David Agreement of September 1978 and a peace settlement between Egypt and Israel. Begun in 1979, Israel completed a withdrawal of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. Syria, meanwhile, had moved closer to the Soviet Union, and the Syrians then moved into Lebanon in support of Palestinians there and the Lebanese Muslims. This produced civil war in Lebanon, and following the shelling of Israeli settlements from southern Lebanon, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in 1982. In September 1983, Israeli forces withdrew to the Awali River. During 1987–1991, Israeli security forces had to deal with a wide-scale uprising by Palestinians known as the Intifada within Israeli-occupied territory in the West Bank and Gaza. The end of the Cold War brought a large influx of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union. Despite peace between Egypt and Israel, at the end of the Cold War a general Middle Eastern peace agreement remained illusive.
Domestically, the Israeli state was organized along the British parliamentary model, with the executive (cabinet) selected by the Knesset (parliament) and subject to it. Israel also had a system of proportional representation in which seats in the Knesset were based on the percentage of votes received. Even parties receiving relatively few votes had representatives in the Knesset. Such parties included those representing the Arab population, those espousing various degrees of Jewish orthodoxy, the communists, and Revisionist Zionist groups.
Until 1977 the Mapai-Labor Party controlled the Knesset. It had deep roots in the socialist movements in Eastern Europe. Mapai-Labor assumed that the party and state were coterminous. Through control of the kibbutz movement of socialist communes, the massive social welfare system of the Histadrut, the powerful military and paramilitary organizations that became the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the leadership of the Jewish Agency before independence, and sufficient seats in the Knesset, Mapai-Labor leaders such as Ben-Gurion, Meir, and Moshe Dayan dominated Israeli politics for three decades after independence. The party was strongly secular in orientation. IDF chiefs of staff often became prime ministers, and it was common for Mapai-Labor leaders to rotate from military command to seats in the Knesset, leadership posts in the Histadrut, and cabinet ministries.
The chief opposition party in these years was the Likud. It supported a Greater Israel and had strong roots in Zionists opposed to the British mandate. It also espoused capitalism over socialism and was a voice for the growing Jewish immigrant population, including those from the Soviet Union. The religious Jewish parties were the wild cards in Israeli politics. Their agendas included introduction of orthodox Jewish traditions as the basis for Israeli law. These ranged from determinations of who could be defined as Jewish and thus were entitled to settle in the state, the strict observation of the Sabbath, and such issues as marriage and divorce and exemption from military service. Such parties exercised undue influence because proportional representation required any party with a plurality of seats in the Knesset to obtain the support of smaller parties. Until 1977 Mapai-Labor was able to form governments by making concessions to the religious parties and those farther to the Left. When the Likud Party took control in 1977, it had to form coalitions with minority parties in much the same fashion as had Mapai-Labor. This allowed the religious parties to continue to influence policy. Mapai-Labor continued to be a force as, at times, the Likud had to include Mapai-Labor in its coalition governments.
Israel's international relations did not change much when power passed from Mapai-Labor to Likud to coalition governments. Israel consistently relied on the United States, which regularly made the Jewish state its largest foreign aid recipient. Ironically, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) was an important support for Israel in its early years. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's government extended billions of dollars in assistance in recognition of the crimes that Nazi Germany had committed against world Jewry during World War II. France, which had been a chief supporter and arms supplier to the Jewish state, became estranged from Israel following the 1967 War when an angry President Charles de Gaulle withdrew French military assistance as a consequence of the preemptive Israeli attack.
From an internal perspective, the chief issues for Israel have been disputes over whether Israel should be a secular or religious state (in the West Bank, Jews may soon well be a minority) and over the makeup of Israeli territory. There has also been a continuing war against terrorism and suicide bombers. The 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip by a government led by the expansionist Likud Party reflects these ongoing debates and concerns. Israeli voters remained keenly interested in such issues as the role of the Orthodox minority, the rights of Israeli Arabs, the fate of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, and the ups and downs of the economy. Daniel E. Spector and Spencer C. Tucker
Quandt, William B. Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution and University of California Press, 1993.; Sachar, Abram L. The Redemption of the Unwanted: From the Liberation of the Death Camps to the Founding of Israel. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.; Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Knopf, 1976.; Schoenbaum, David. The United States and the State of Israel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.; Stafran, Nadav. Israel, The Embattled Ally. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Daniel E. Spector and Spencer C. Tucker