Road to Independence

Unable to reconcile Jewish and Arab demands led Britain in April 1947 to hand over the Palestinian predicament to the United Nations General Assembly. The UN set up a special committee on Palestine, UNSCOP, to solve the region's future. On 29 November 1947, the Assembly voted to adopt the committee's recommendation to partition the Land into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish community accepted the partition plan; the Arabs rejected it. Following the UN vote, local Arab militants, aided mainly by irregular volunteers from Arab countries, launched violent attacks against the Jewish community in an effort to frustrate the partition resolution and prevent the establishment of the Jewish state. War spread and external intervention increased as the disintegration of the British administration progressed. Alarmed by the continued fighting, the United States, in early March 1948, expressed its opposition to a forcible implementation of partition, and on March 16 the UN Palestine Commission reported its inability, because of Arab resistance, to implement partition. On March 19 the United States called for the suspension of the efforts of the UN Palestine Commission and on March 30 for the declaration of a truce and the further consideration of the problem by the General Assembly.

The Zionists insisted that partition was binding and, nervous about the change in U.S. policy, went on the offensive in an attempt to forward the establishment of the state. Having suffered a number of setbacks when they had only reacted to attacks, they launched two succesful offensives during April. These successes were aided by the failure of an Arab attack on Mishmar HaEmek, and the death in battle of al-Qadir al-Husseini, commander of the Jerusalem front, and perhaps also by what appears to have been a massacre, by Irgunists and members of the Stern Gang, of inhabitants of the Arab village of Deir Yasin. On April 22 the Arabs conceded defeat in Haifa and abandoned the city, Jaffa fell on May 13 and at the same time the Haganah embarked on a campaign of psychological warfare. The Arabs, numbering some 1,200,000 were divided and poorly served by their leaders, many of whom had sought refuge elsewhere while calling on their fellow Arabs to stay put and fight. The Jewish population numbered only 650,000 but were organized, having developed throgh the period of the Mandate, political, economic and social institutions, in effect a nation state in everything but name.

On May 14 the last British high commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, left Palestine and the British Mandate came to an end.

The War of 1948

On the same day the State of Israel was declared and within a few hours won de facto recognition from the United States and de jure recognition from the Soviet Union. But early on May 15 units of the regular armies of Syria, Transjordan, Iraq, and Egypt crossed the frontiers of Palestine.

The initial fighting was critical for the newborn Jewish state. Forbidden weapons by the British Israel was unequipped with anything but the most basic weapons, and the initial fighting comprised Arab advances and desperate attempts by the Israelis to hold them off. Montgomery believed the Jews would be overrun and slaughtered. Yigal Yadin, Israel's Chief of Operations, was more optimistic - he thought there was a 50-50 chance. As it happened, after the first month of fighting the tide turned and by December 1948 a series of campaigns had routed the Arab forces .

By the summer of 1949 Israel had signed armistices with its neighbours. It had been recognized by more than 50 governments throughout the world, joined the United Nations, and extended its sovereignty over about 8,000 square miles (21,000 square kilometres) beyond the mandated Jewish state west of the Jordan River. 2,000 square miles more were divided between Transjordan and Egypt. Transjordan kept the hilltops it had occupied west of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem, although its annexation of those lands in 1950 was recognized only by Britain and Pakistan. In 1949 the expanded country was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Egypt retained control over, but did not annex, a small area on the Mediterranean coast that became known as the Gaza Strip. The Arabs of British Palestine, never quite able to combine as a unified community, were now a social and political non-entity.

Early Political Developments

The initial government was formed as a provisional government at Tel Aviv, with Chaim Weizmann as president [a largely symbolic position] and David Ben-Gurion as prime minister. The government moved in December, 1949 to Israel's capital, Jerusalem. Israel allowed the return of 150,000 Arab refugees, mostly to reunite families. One major raison d'etre of the state was to provide a homeland for all Jews who sought one. This led to the 1950 Law of the Return, which provided for free and automatic citizenship for all immigrant Jews; over the ensuing 3 years the Jewish population doubled, placing an enormous burden on the strained resources of the newborn state. At the same time border incidents with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan increased.

In particular trouble in the Gaza area escalated in 1956, after Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. On October 29 Israel carried out a preemptive attack on Egyptian territory and within a few days had conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula, while Britain and France invaded the area of the Suez Canal. Under pressure from the United States, the USSR, and the United Nations Israel withdrew from Sinai in November 1956, and from Gaza in March 1957. UN forces were sent to the Sinai and Gaza to keep peace between Egypt and Israel.

In 1963, Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister and was succeeded in that office by Levi Eshkol. Eshkol had to cope with increased guerrilla incursions into Israel from Syria and the shelling of Israeli villages by the Syrian army from the Golan Heights.

Six Days and Yom Kippur

In May 1967, Nasser moved the Egyptian army into the Sinai desert and demanded that the UN withdraw. The UN acceded and Egypt blockaded the Israeli port of Eilat (on the Gulf of Aqaba) by closing the Straits of Tiran, and moved its army towards the Israeli border, declaring its intention to destroy the Jewish state. Israel called up its reserves and normal activity ground to a halt

On June 5, 1967, Israel made a pre-emptive strike against Egypt and Syria; that same morning Jordan attacked Israel. Over the next six days, Israel conquered and occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank including Jordanian Jerusalem; the conflict became known as the Six-Day War. Israel annexed east Jerusalem combining the Arab and Israeli sectors into one Jerusalem, and offered the annexed Arabs Israeli citizenship. The rest of the territory taken, was and is occupied and controlled by the army.

After the war Arab guerrillas, operating largely from Jordan, stepped up their incursions. This basically came to a stop when King Hussein of Jordan - in a bloody battle known as 'Black September'- disarmed the Palestinian guerillas who had become a threat to his own government.

When Eshkol died in 1969, Golda Meir was recalled from retirement and illness to become prime minister. Over the next few years Israel lived in a state of no war and no peace. Then, on October 6, 1973, at 2pm on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Egypt and Syria simultaneously attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Other Arab states sent contingents of soldiers to aid in the attack on Israel. Egypt's troops crossed the Suez Canal and advanced into Sinai. Toward the end of the conflict, Israel troops themselves crossed the Suez, surrounded Egypt's Third Army and cleared the road to Cairo. On the Golan Syrian troops were pushed back and an artillery battery placed a few kilometers outside Damascus. The UN Security Council called for a ceasefire on October 22 and 23 and shortly after the fighting ended.

Trying Peace

In December 1973, the first Arab-Israeli peace conference took place in Geneva under the auspices of the UN. An agreement to disengage Israeli and Egyptian forces was reached in January 1974, largely through the “shuttle diplomacy” of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Israeli troops withdrew several miles into the Sinai, a UN buffer zone was established, and Egyptian forces reoccupied the east bank of the Suez Canal. A similar agreement between Israel and Syria was reached May, 1974, again through the efforts of Kissinger. Israel withdrew from lands captured in the 1973 war, plus a strip along the '67 border which became Syrian territory and a UN buffer zone. But she continues to hold most of the Goan Heights.

A growing protest aginst the government, largely due to the surpise attack and the failure to call up the reserves led Golda Meir to resign in 1974. She was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin, who had retired as Chief of staff and had been appointed Israel's amabassador to the US. His government fell when planes bought by the Airforce landed on Shabbat and the National Religious Party resigned from the government. Before the ensuing elections Shimon Peres replaced Rabin as head of the Labor Party, but under his leadership Labor lost the elections for the first time since the inception of the state. Many of its traditional voters switched to a new central party headed by Yigal Yadin. In 1977, the Likud party under the leadership of Menachem Begin won the elections with 48 seats. Begin formed a right-wing coalition, totally opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state, committed to the modern state expanding into the Biblically promised Land of Israel [Judea and Samaria in particular] and Jewish settlements sprung up all over Israeli-occupied territories, in particular near the old Biblical towns in what was now the West Bank.

Nevertheless it was under Begin's stewardship that Israel signed its first peace agreement with one of its neighbors. In 1977, Egyptian President Sadat visited Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset. A year later, under the watchful eye of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel was negotiated at Camp David, and a formal treaty signed on March 26, 1979, in Washington. Egypt recognized Israel and opened trade relations between the two countries; Israel returned Sinai to Egyptian control but Egyptian forces in the Sinai were restricted. It was also on Begin's watch that the Allon road was built running largely along the lines of Allon's plan - rejected by his own Labor party - for reaching an accommodation with Jordan.

The 1980s to the Present

Neither Jordan nor Lebanon were involved in the '73 war, but whereas the border with Jordan remained quiet, the north was a different matter. After "Black September" the PLO had regrouped in Lebanon finding a base in the refugee camps there. There they formed an alliance with the Shi'ites and reopened the old Lebanese civil war. The government forces soon found themselves unable to cope and in the end turned to Syria who sent in an army and restored order; but they didn't go back to Syria and from 1976 on Lebanon was basically a Syrian puppet.

The PLO now turned its attention to Israel and began to regularly shell Israeli towns and villages and occasionally invade Israel. Towns like Qiryat Shemona found themselves under constant attack and living underground in bomb shelters. Retaliations having little effect, in March 1978 the Israeli army went into Lebanon, pushed the PLO back behind the Litani River and withdrew when the UN sent in an Interim Force [still there] to act as a buffer. UNIFIL turned out to be less than useless and PLO attacks continued on a regular basis from further back and under the shelter of Syrian guns. There were however less direct attacks invading Israeli territory largely through Israel's promotion of the South Lebanese Army, a Christian militia under Major Saad Haddad.

In 1982 PLO forces blew up a bus and shot Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov, leaving him a virtual vegetable. Israel bombed PLO bases in Lebanon in retaliation and when these began to fire into Israel, Israel invaded Lebanon again. Much to the surprise of most Israelis (including, it appears, Prime Minister Begin) Israeli forces, orchestrated by Defence Minister Sharon, reached the outskirts of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. It was here that Israel allowed Lebanese Chrisitan militias (Maronite militias, not Israel's long-standing allies in the south) into the camps of Sabra and Shatilla and a massacre ensued, causing an outcry in Israel and a demonstration of some 400,000 which led to Sharon being found indirectly responsible by an Israeli judicial commission and unfit to be Defence Minister. Shortly after Begin resigned and was replaced by Yitzhak Shamir as Prime Minister and head of the Likud.

After a withdrawal to Tunisia by the PLO was negotiated, Israeli forces withdrew, but remained in southern Lebanon where they patrolled in conjunction with the SLA finding themselves in conflict now with a new militia, Hizbollah. Hizbollah was largely a consequence of the shift in power in Iran as the Ayatollah Homeini took over from the Shah and a devout Shi'ite Moslem regime was instituted. In her agenda to spread Shi'ism Iran began to finance Shi'ite mitias and the traditional Lebanese Shi'ite Amal found themselves upstaged by the Iran-backed upstart Hizbollah. Israel continued to control south Lebanon, in constant conflict mostly with Hizbollah.

After Begin resigned and Shamir became Prime Minister, the following elections left Israel in a stalemate with the Likud and Labor both winning 40 seats. Each party found itself unable to form a government without the other and eventually a government of national unity was formed with Peres as Prime Minister for the first 2 years and Shamir for the next 2 years. Rabin served as Defence Minister throughout, while Peres and Shamir swapped positions as Foreign Minister. In the following 1988 elections, Shamir again created a National Unity Government with Labor, but without the "rotation" element of its predecessor. This government fell in 1990 when Labor withdrew, but Shamir succeeded in forming a narrow coalition government.

During Shamir's premiership large numbers of emigrants from Ethiopia and far more from the Soviet Union increased Israel's population by nearly 10% in three years (1989–92). This led to significant unemployment and a lack of housing. Shamir was happy to settle as many as he could in the occupied territories. In December 1987, the first Arab Intifada and during the 1991 Gulf War, which had nothing to do with Israel, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel, presumably in an attempt to provoke Israeli retaliation which they hoped would break up at least the Arab part of the coalition against them. Israel however failed to retaliate. In August 1991 peace talks opened between Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

In 1992 Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister for the second time. He had engineered a change in Labor internal elections so that the entire body of party members and not just the entral committe voted for head of the party. In the subsequent party elections Rabin replaced Peres as head of the party and Labor won the 1992 elections. Shamir resigned as head of the Likud (and in 1996 from the Knesset). Benjamin Netanyahu won the Likud internal elections and became head of the party and head of the opposition. Rabin's government pursued Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, at Oslo with the PLO and in 1994 with Jordan.

On the non-peace front, in 1993 (July 25-July 31) Israel opened a campaign against Hizbollah (known in Lebanon as The Seven-Day War). This was in the wake of a series of rocket attacks into Israel and attacks which killed five soldiers in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon. Hizbollah responded with more rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets. At the same time an agreement was being hammered out with the PLO; The Oslo Accords, officially called the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements or Declaration of Principles (DOP), were completed in Oslo on August 20, 1993, and officially signed in a public ceremony at Washington on September 13, 1993.

The PLO moved into the West Bank and the Gaza strip and in 1995, Israel and the PLO agreed on a transition to Palestinian self-rule in most of the West Bank. Israel began to slowly withdraw from these territories, gradually handing over control of towns to the PLO. Nevertheless violent attacks on Israelis continued and Arafat officially lauded those responsible. In 1994 a treaty with Jordan ended the 46-year-old state of war between the two nations.

Then on November 4th 1995 Rabin was murdered by a religious Jewish extremist and Peres replaced him as Prime Minister. On Peres's watch Israel carried out Operation Grapes of Wrath (April 11-April 27, 1996) in an attempt to end shelling of northern Israel by Iranian and Syrian-backed Lebanese Islamic militia. The Israel offensive ended when a UN camp at Qana, Lebanon, was hit by an errant Israeli bomb killing about 100 Lebanese civilians who had sought shelter there.

Shortly after, elections were held in Israel. This was the first election in Israel where the Prime Minister was elected directly, so that the public voted separately for the Prime Minister and separately for a party. While the new system gave more power to the head of government it also promoted a fragmentation of the Knesset so that the slow consolidation of parties over the past decades now reversed itself with some 33 parties running and the formation of a workable government made more difficult.

A series of bombings among Israel's civilian population on the eve of the 1996 elections swung public opinion in favor of Netanyahu who won by the slimmest of margins. His government lasted nearly 3 years before falling, with Netanyahu's inexperience showing. In an attempt to allay fears about Israel's future policies, Netanyahu undertook to honor all previous agreements and most of Hebron was handed over to Palestinian control in January 1997. In 1998, Israel agreed to withdraw from additional West Bank territory, while the Palestinian Authority pledged to take stronger measures to fight terrorism. Further negotiations over territory came to a standstill and in the following elections Ehud Barak, former Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, now the new head of the Labor Party, defeated Netanyahu (who resigned as head of the Likud) and became Prime Minister May 17, 1999.

He too had little political experience and tried to run the country in US presidential style, in the process tearing his own political base to shreds. Barak had run on a campaign promise to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanese territory, and now - unusual for a politician (which perhaps, Barak demonstrated he was not) - carried out his campaign promise. On the diplomatic front, he ignored the Palestinians and attempted to reach an agreement with Syria. When these attempts ground to a halt he turned to the Palestinian problem which he tried to solve in a single step, bypassing the step by step approach of Oslo, which was not going well anyway, and in a summit at Camp David made an attempt to reach a final status agreement with Arafat, to settle all outstanding problems and to put an end to the conflict. Arafat however was not prepared to negotiate and simply said no to all Israeli offers, making none of his own in return. Here you can see a map of the status of affairs up to this point.

Two months later he initiated the intifada, which grew more and more violent. Barak's government fell apart, and Barak resigned in December 2000. He lost the ensuing elections to Ariel Sharon, who had replaced Netanyahu as head of the Likud.

Sharon formed a national-unity coalition. In 2002 the Passover bombings and others killed some 130 Israelis in 1 month. Sharon's government ordered the reoccupation of West Bank towns in a new attempt to stop the attacks. In October 2002, Labor accused Sharon of favoring Israeli settlers in the occupied territories over the poor, and withdrew their support. Sharon called for parliamentary elections in early 2003, and in January the Likud won a substantial victory at the polls. The following month Sharon formed a four-party, mainly right-wing coalition government.

In May, 2003, Sharon's government accepted the international “road map for peace” with some reservations; the plan envisaged the establishment of a Palestinian state in three years. Talks resumed with Palestinians, a three-month cease-fire with Palestinian militants was supposedly agreed, and Israel lifted some restrictions in Gaza and the West Bank. But suicide bombings and Israeli retaliations resumed in August, and in October Israel attacked Syria for the first time in 20 years, bombing what it called a terrorist training camp in retaliation for suicide bombings. Syria hosted and still hosts the heads of the most virulent anti-Israel militant Palestinian groups.

Israel's much talked about, but still largely unconstructed, security barrier in the West Bank, which, if erected, would include some 15% of that territory, brought widespread international condemnation in late 2003 A July, 2004, advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (requested by Palestinians and the UN General Assembly) deemed its construction illegal under international law because it was being constructed on Palestinian lands. Israel's position is that the territories are undefined and cannot be defined as Palestinian. Meanwhile in response to an appeal by concerned parties, Israel's own High Court of Justice in June 2004 ordered the wall to be rerouted in certain areas because of the hardship it would cause Palestinians.

In March 2004 Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas was killed in an Israeli strike, bringing dire threats from Palestinian militants. At the same time Sharon put forward his plan to withdraw from the Gaza strip, a plan rejected in a nonbinding vote (May, 2004) by his own Likud party members. The plan then resulted in defections from his coalition, but Sharon went ahead with his plan to withdraw by the end of 2005. In October 2004, he secured parliamentary approval for the plan. The plan also called for abandoning some West Bank settlements while expanding others. Sharon formed a new coalition with the Labor party, which supported the Gaza withdrawal, in January 2005. He followed this up with a truce with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and in March 2005, Israeli forces withdrew from Jericho and began to leave other West Bank towns. In August the Gaza settlements were evacuated and the next month Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza.

In November 2005, Amir Peretz, a trade union leader, replaced Shimon Peres as head of the Labor party and pulled Labor from the government, bringing about new elections. Sharon withdrew from the Likud to form the centrist Kadima [Forward] party, apparently to force a realignment of Israeli politics and retain the prime ministership. In January 2006, however, Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke and was replaced by Ehud Olmert, who became acting prime minister and leader of the new party.

Kadima won 29 seats (significantly less than the 40 the polls had given Sharon) in the March 2006 elections. Olmert in May formed a new coalition government. Escalating rocket attacks from Gaza and the capture by Hamas guerrillas of an Israeli soldier led to an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in June, 2006, as well as other actions against Hamas and the Palestinians.

A new front was opened when, on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah launched "Operation True Promise" at 9:05 AM. A diversionary attack of rockets and mortars was followed by Hezbollah troops entering Israel where they attacked two Israeli Humvees with rocket-propelled grenades, killing three soldiers and capturing two others. In response, the Israeli army launched air, naval, and ground attacks at Hezbollah targets across Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching hundreds of rockets into northern Israel, as far as Haifa, Afula and elsewhere. A cease-fire was reached on August 14th.

A government-appointed commission was set up to investigate Israel's conduct of the war, and the government's standing was shaken. Matters were not been improved by a series of potential scandals involving the President, the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister (since convicted and sentenced to prison) and more. The Winograd Committee found that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff had no clear target in mind, that they had failed to examine a variety of options before acting and that they had performed poorly throughout. The Chief of Staff resigned, followed later by the Minister of Defence and eventually Ohlmert resigned. Livni took over, Netanyahu returned to lead the Likud, and Barak to lead the Labor Party. Elections took place February 10, 2009 in the wake of the Cast Lead Operation in Gaza, carried out when rocket attacks from Gaza, which had substantially slowed for the previous 6 months, were renewed on a substantial scale.

Voter turnout was 65.2% with 3,373,490 valid votes, resulting in 21 parties that ran not making it into the Knesset and 12 that did with the following results:


No. of votes

No. of seats




Likud - Ahi



Yisrael Beytenu









United Torah Judaism



United Arab List - Ta'al



National Union






Meretz and The New Movement



Habayit Hayehudi - The New National Religious Party (NRP)






Netanyahu formed a large, unwieldy, 7-party coalition government with 30 cabinet ministers, and the future is obscure.


[In time this posting will be updated with a survey of Israel's changing society and economy from 1948 till today ... ]