Israel is home to the origin of the two of the most influential religions in the world. It is the Promised Land of the Jews, where Jesus the Christian Messiah was born and Mohammed the Muslim Prophet attained ascension to heaven. Once called the “land of milk and honey” in the Bible, Israel lies in the Middle East along the Mediterranean, wedged between Egypt and Lebanon.
Yet, Israel also boasts of one of the fastest growing economies in the developed world, largely due to the country’s remarkable growth in the advanced hi-tech sector.
During 2006, Israel exported about $15 billion in electronics and software equipment. This industry has been fueled in recent years by Israel’s large percentage of engineers, the world’s highest, with 135 engineers per 10,000 persons, as compared to 85 per 10,000 persons in the U.S.
In 1800 BC, Abraham led a group of nomads and settled in the mountains of Canaan, becoming the first settlers in Israel and its main inhabitants until 1000 BC. During this time several other tribes attacked the Canaanites including the Hebrews who came from Mesopotamia. The Hebrews, known as the Sons of Israel, lived divided in 12 tribes and they were brought together by Saul the first King of Israel towards the end of the second millennium BC. His successor David made Jerusalem the capital and his son King Solomon built the Temple with the Holy Ark. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into two with ten out of the 12 tribes establishing the Kingdom of Israel and the remaining two setting up the Kingdom of Judah. In 721 BC, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and the Kingdom of Judah was vanquished by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
|In 333 BC, Israel came under the leadership of Alexander the Great and in 66 BC it passed ownership to the Roman general Pompeii. For the next 200 years, the country was ruled by Jewish kings as a Roman vassal state. Jesus was born under the Roman rule but it took 300 years for Christianity to be legitimized in the Roman Empire. In 135 AD, the Romans snuffed out yet another rebellion by the Jews, known as the Bar Kochba revolt, and Emperor Hadrian renamed the province of Judea as Syria Palaestina, today’s Palestine. Most of the Jews who continued to practice their religion fled or were forcibly exiled from Palestine, eventually forming a second Jewish Diaspora.||
In 640 AD, Israel was seized by the Caliph Omar marking the beginning of Muslim rule. During the initial years of Arab rule, Christians were allowed entry into Jerusalem, but this was stopped during the 11th century, prompting Pope Urban II to call for a crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. The first crusade ended with the successful conquest of Jerusalem in 1099.
But the crusader era soon came to an end in 1187 with the invasion of Saladin. The country’s importance was continuously diminished with successive occupations by the Mamelukes in the mid-13th century and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Israel’s resurrection took place when Napoleon entered the scene in 1798 and recognized its geographical and strategic importance, which resulted in increased interest in the country, especially from Europe. The dynamic 19th century ushered in new social changes and the emancipation of European Jews with the onset of the French Revolution. The rise of Zionism1 led to ideals of a Jewish homeland, which was established in Palestine. Jews began to immigrate to the country in vast numbers. By 1914, the country’s population of seven million was comprised of one million Jews, with the rest being Arabs.
Modernism takes root
At the end of World War I, Britain had taken charge of Jerusalem and Palestine and had proposed the Balfour Declaration, which stated Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, without violating the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities. Britain received a provisional mandate over Palestine, which would extend the west and east of the River Jordan and was formalized in 1922. In 1923, the British divided Palestine into two districts, one for the Jews and the other for the Arabs known as Trans-Jordan, which is today’s Jordan. This soon led to conflicts between Palestinian Jews and Arabs. When the British turned a blind eye to the situation, the Palestinian Jews formed the Hagana, which was the beginning of the Israeli Defense Forces.
On May 14, 1948 the Palestinian Jews declared their own state of Israel. The very next day, the new Israel was invaded by Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen and the Arab inhabitants were encouraged to leave. Nearly four million refugees fled the war torn land, which became the first wave of Palestinian Arab refugees. The end result of the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence was the creation of a Jewish state slightly larger than the one proposed by the 1947 United Nations Resolution 181. The day Israel was formed is remembered by the Arabs as Nakba Day or the day of the catastrophe. It marks the beginning of the Palestinian exodus and the displacement of the Arab refugees who were barred from returning to their homes after the war ended in 1949.
In 1956, Egypt’s move to take control of the Suez prompted Israeli, British and French armies to invade Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The battle ended with Israel handing over Sinai to Egypt, who used its control of Sinai to impose a blockade on the Israeli port of Eilat. In retaliation, Israeli forces, aided by Britain and France, who were waiting for an opportunity to regain control over the Suez Canal, invaded Sinai and took control of the entire peninsula within a few days. Finally in 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty, in which Israel agreed to transfer all control over Sinai to Egypt.
In 1987, a Palestinian intifada or uprising employing guerrilla warfare, began in order to curb the encroachment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The chances of a peaceful ending negotiated by the Oslo Peace Accord were dashed when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. During the term of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli settlements spread in the West Bank and Gaza causing terrorist activities to increase. Numerous attempts have been made by successive heads of state to reduce tensions between these sides but to no avail. Even today the Gaza Strip and the West Bank remain two of the most fought over pieces of land in the world.
A congregation of different worlds
Israel rests upon a global stage supporting a diverse population and varied cultures. Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Circassians, Samaritans and Jews from over 70 Diasporas converge here involved in moshavim2, kibbutzim, business and research. The uniqueness of these communities are preserved despite Israel’s heterogeneous history and a population consisting of four thousand years of Jewish heritage, over a century of Zionism, and more than half a century of modern statehood. Israel has been flooded by waves of immigration or Aliyah over the years and has a society largely made up of immigrants, with each group having its own idiosyncratic characteristics. This has made the process of integration into a state that is constantly in flux, very difficult. Israel absorbed almost 1.2 million immigrants in a decade, augmenting the country’s civilian labor force, from 1.65 million in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2006. Today, Israel has 1.7 million Arabs and at least 300,000 non-Jewish Israeli immigrants in addition to the 5.7 million Israeli Jews. But immigration has its own advantages. It has served to make Israel a culturally vibrant society, rich with exquisite diversity and uniqueness.
While music icon Ofra Haza is well known all over the world, it is Albert Einstein who is the most illuminated personality from Israel. So is Anne Frank whose diary is perpetually on bestseller lists and Chaim Topol whose “Fiddler on the Roof” is one of the most loved classic films of all time. As popular as its people is Israel’s food. Since the country is so diverse it does not have a universally recognized national dish, but falafel3 stuffed in pita bread comes close to being one. Falafel along with hummus4 and pita are served at all street corners throughout Israel. Blintzes5and latkes6 are some of the other typical Israeli food.
|More than 80% of Israelis are Jewish, with a small percentage observing a set of dietary laws called “kashruth” or kosher, which forbids the mixing of milk and meat, but in principle includes all fresh vegetables and fruits. Jewish law requires that all food be carefully checked for insects and other irregularities before consumption. The Jewish Passover is one of the most well known festivals, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. During this significant Jewish festival, lunch staples include matzah or unleavened bread, and chametz, which includes anything made from wheat, rye, barley and oats.|
Rise of Zionism and kibbutzim
Modern Israel was born in the 1880s when the first Zionist immigrants came to Palestine and melded into the existing Jewish community. During this time, the country was fueled by an agricultural economy and an intensive labor force, and was highly state-driven. Zionists considered the stereotype of Jews as merchants very contemptuous. For these people, influenced by the communist and socialist ideals of Europe at that time, industrial and agricultural laborers were the real “working class heroes.” This gave rise to Zionist settlements in Israel in the early 1900s, which were agricultural communities based on communal equality. The foundation for kibbutzim later broadened to incorporate industry. Inspired by social ideas, the kibbutz movement played a prominent role in the economic, political and cultural activities of the country. The Histadrut, a powerful labor-union umbrella organization that strove to represent all the workers at the national level, was established during this time with its first leader being David Ben Gurion the founder of the state of Israel.
Europe in the 1930s was influenced by strong sentiments of anti-Semitism, and pre-state Israel was inundated by scores of fleeing Jews from countries such as Poland and Germany. These were well-educated urban dwellers that brought with them knowledge of industrial and urban culture. With their arrival, cities began to flourish, a stock exchange was set up and light industrial enterprises began taking shape. In the period from 1922 to 1947, real net domestic product (NDP) of the Jewish sector grew at an average rate of 13.2%, and in 1947 accounted for 54% of the NDP of the Jewish and Arab economies together.
A “Silicon Wadi” emerges
The state of Israel came into being in 1948 and the government policy was firmly labor and socialist-oriented. This resulted in the creation of a multitude of state-granted private-sector monopolies alongside state-owned companies under the direct control of government ministries. From 1950 to 1965, Israel achieved a high rate of growth. Real GNP grew by an average annual rate of over 11%, and per capita GNP by greater than 6% thanks to large sums of capital inflows from various sources like U.S. aid and German reparations to individuals. Throughout this period, much of the Israeli economy rapidly industrialized with a balance being achieved between the government, the Histradut and the industrial private sector.
The oil shocks of the 1970s did not fail to touch Israel, which was already reeling from the effects of the 1973 Yom Kippur war7. To add to its woes, the Labor party was dethroned in the elections of 1977 and the Likud party, which came to power, favored free-market policies. The party immediately implemented a series of economic liberalization laws, which for the most part were ruinous. The early 1980s were thus marred by hyperinflation and economic malaise caused by the country’s sudden overnight transformation from a state-governed economy to a free-market one. Finally, in 1985, the old Histadrut-industrialist government was back in place, and immediately began repairing the damages by imposing fiscal, budgetary, and wage austerity measures.
However, liberalization was not completely abandoned, and along with a structural shift in the late 1980s and early 90s, Israel’s economy began to bloom. During this time there was a move from agriculture and light industry to a knowledge-based economy placing Israel in an economically viable position. The country had just signed the Oslo peace accord, which placed its per capita GDP at $1500 in 1999, on par with that of Europe. The 1990s saw the weakening of the old “working class hero”, and young urban professionals and intellectuals began to take their place. The Histradut, now reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, failed to create much of an impact in this new fast-paced economy. Growth at this time was exceptional, touching 6.2% in 2000, mostly due to a rise in high tech acquisitions and investments. The only constant feature through these years of changes were the immigrants who continued to pour in, bringing with them a wealth of intellectual resources and knowledge that sparked new economic growth waves. The rise and expansion of the technology industry was so rapid that Israel was sometimes referred to as the “Silicon Wadi”, a play on the word “valley” in Arabic.
Along with technology the pharmaceutical sector too began to develop and grew strongly in the 1990s, averaging around 10% per annum. In 2008, per capita expenditure on drugs in Israel was estimated at US$520, the highest level in the Middle East. Pharmaceutical expenditure in Israel accounts for approximately 15-20% of total health expenditure. Imports account for about half or two thirds of the total market in terms of sales and Israel imports almost 60% of its pharmaceutical needs. Israel actually began to engage in parallel importation in the beginning of 2001. In mid 2001, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of parallel imports, rejecting claims that it constituted a patent infringement or that it posed health risks, since Israel would be importing only from industrialized countries.
Today, Israel is the 33rd richest country in the world on a per capita basis while in numbers and frequency of start-ups it is second only to Silicon Valley. In fact next to the U.S., Israel has the most number of start-ups in the world, with 80% of around 3,000 companies involved in R&D being less than 10 years old.
Cash and growth
But good times were short. In 2001, at the dawn of the millennium, the economy ruptured and came to a standstill. The NASDAQ crash in New York all but stopped the investment capital that had been flowing into Israeli start-ups. The new Palestinian intifada successfully kept visitors away, ushering in several economic restrictions. The national budget for 2004 reflected three years of recession, and included numerous spending cuts. One cause for the recession was the huge budget reserved for defense. During this period the defense budget alone reached about 22 to 25% of GDP. GDP growth fluctuated, generally between 2% and 5%. In 2000, it touched as high as 7.5%, but fell below zero in the recession years from 2001 to mid-2003. There was a significant rise in unemployment as well wage erosion, which led to a decline in private consumption in 2002, for the first time since the early 1980s. But Israel recovered soon, with a growth rate of 1.7% emerging in 2003. This sped up to 4.4% in 2004, and Israel entered a period of stabilization and recovery.
After the last cries of the uprising had ebbed away, the Ministry of Finance launched a new economic recovery program, designed to promote higher productivity and growth. It streamlined the public sector through downsizing and salary cuts. The government strived to privatize enterprises it still owned to both reduce the relative size of the government deficit and the government sector itself. In 2005, the economy grew by 5.2% and GDP per capita increased by 3.3%.
Israel operates a market economy, and exports are one of its main sources of revenue. With the U.S. as its largest trading partner, the country’s export products include cut diamonds, chemicals and agricultural products. The export of these goods and services account for almost 44% of Israel’s GDP. Israel has also developed a reputation for being on the cutting edge of technological research and development, particularly in electronics, biotechnology and software. While commodity imports rose in 2008, there has been a slowdown in the import of capital goods, indicating a wane in the country’s economic growth.
Present economic challenges
Israel needs a sound and highly productive economy to meet its problems and challenges, which are mainly centered on the peace process. Most of Israel’s economic problems are caused by its state-dominated economy, which has promoted privatization to such an extent that it has created monopolies. This has curbed competition and inflated costs. Breaking these monopolies will reduce the cost of consumer goods, potentially enabling millions of Israelis, dependent on government supplementary income, to have a better life. Israel has a large portion of the population living under very modest conditions and surviving only on government aid. Although Israel has one of the highest living standards in the Middle East, the people, especially Palestinians and immigrants, do not benefit. Yet Israel’s macroeconomic policy, driven by the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Israel, has received kudos from global financial institutions. The strategy behind their successful policies is based upon the tenets of low deficit and inflation, as well as decreased unemployment and national debt. Despite its high-performing economic institutions, Israel’s primary economic problem remains the weakness of its government system. It is the private sector that pushes the performance of the economy, while Israel’s public sector lounges at the bottom of the list of developed countries8. The gap between the private and public sector is one of the largest compared to other developed countries, although Israel’s public sector still constitutes over 45% of its GDP.
The global financial crisis ravaged countries all across the world, yet of all the regions, the Middle East was the least affected. But with exports coming to a standstill and consumer spending drastically tightened, the downturn finally took its toll on Israel in January 2009. With Israel’s economy growing at its slowest pace in 2008, the Central Bank was forced to cut interest rates. In the subsequent months, Israel cut interest rates by a total of 3.75 points from October 2008 to March 2009. The country faced its first recession in eight years by May 2009, as its economy contracted for a second consecutive quarter.
Israeli banks have traditionally been conservative lenders compared to their colleagues in the U.S. and Europe, providing a shield against the worst of the global crunch. Other factors like an active interest rate policy, a surplus in the current account of the balance of payments, high and rising foreign exchange reserves, high levels of growth and employment, and a strong banking system have all helped Israel keep its ship relatively steady.
But Israel’s biggest weakness is its strong dependency on exports, one of the main reasons its economy was jarred by the recession. Languid consumer spending affected Israeli exports to the U.S., the main destination for Israeli goods. In the first quarter, exports to the States declined by 34% year-on-year. The Palestinian conflict and skyrocketing military bills, currently amounting $10 billion annually, have also been a drag on the economy. According to figures from the U.S. government, Israel’s military expenditure for 2008 was 7.3% of its GDP, one of the highest in the world.
But thanks to the Central Bank’s close and efficient monitoring of the economy, Israel has slowly limped back to relative normalcy. The country’s high concentration of hi-tech companies and proactive government initiatives has helped Israel become the first developed market to raise interest rates in September 2009. Albeit a small nudge up from 0.5% to 0.75%, the rate hike marked Israel’s surprisingly fast recovery as it exited the recession in the second quarter of 2009.
The way forward
Now that the worst of the economic fallout from the global financial crisis is in the past, Israel can focus on administering macroeconomic policies that will sustain the country’s growth, which bounded up by 4.4% in the fourth quarter of 2009, its fastest rate in two years. Miraculously, despite being heavily dependent on foreign trade, Israel managed to not just stay afloat but even curb its trade deficit, which plunged 61%,in 2009 to $5.1 billion for the year, the lowest ever since 1990. Such remarkable positive developments have encouraged the central bank to step up Israel’s 2010 growth forecast to an optimistic 3.7%.
Stanley Fischer, the central bank governor and the watchdog of the economy, has been deeply instrumental in ensuring that Israel emerged from the recession with just a few scratches. And now he is oiling the momentum of the economy with rate increases. While other global economies are yet to release their tight hold on interest rates, he has hiked interest rates by 0.25% for two consecutive months, in December 2009 and January 2010.
Israel’s accomplishment has been extraordinary thanks to prudent banking practices, smooth mortgage markets and a current account surplus. But Israel is not one to rest on its laurels. Fischer points out that, “We have challenges for the future. We will have to draw conclusions from what happened in the crisis, to create plans for economic growth.” Key issues such as widening social inequality, reducing poverty and promoting the political peace process remain to be tackled.
The future is here
It has been often said that the gathering of exiles became the raison d’être for this Jewish nation. Since its birth, Israel has embraced more than three million immigrants. In its first four years, Israel’s population more than doubled as 700,000 immigrants, mostly refugees from postwar Europe and other places, poured into the country in a steady stream. These newcomers have contributed to Israel’s steady rise in GDP growth over the years, especially since 1990.
Although Israel is vulnerable, constantly in turmoil racked by petty battles, it has a strong civil society, bolstered by a robust economy. And it appears that this economy is poised to keep growing.
1The ideology that Jews are a people or nation like any other, and should gather together in a single homeland
2A type of cooperative agricultural community of individual farms
3Seasoned mashed chickpeas, formed into balls and fried
4A dip made from mashed chickpeas
7Part of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, this war was fought from 6 October to 26 October. The war began with a surprise joint attack on Israel by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
8Rank 29 according to data from the 2006 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum
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