The state of Israel, which goes to the polls on Tuesday, is one of the world's youngest countries, carved out as a Jewish homeland 60 years ago from what used to be the Ottoman Empire and the ancestral land of Arab peoples. It is also one of the states most contested by its neighbors, with which it has fought several wars. Neither its borders nor the status of its capital are universally recognized.
* During the 1967 Middle East war, Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria, formally annexing the two areas in 1980 and 1981, respectively.
* Although Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, its position is not recognized by the international community and almost all foreign embassies remain in Tel Aviv.
Israel's destiny is also tied up with the Palestinian territories it occupied after the 1967 war: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but has maintained a crippling economic blockade and on Dec. 28 it invaded Gaza in a 22-day offensive that left 1,300 Palestinians dead and caused billions in damages.
Israel continues to maintain troops and settlers in much of the West Bank, and Palestinian residents are subjected to checkpoints and do not have full control over their tax revenue.
Not counting annexed or occupied territories, Israel covers 21,121 square kilometers (8,155 square miles). It lies on the Mediterranean Sea and has borders with Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan and the West Bank to the east and Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the south.
7.18 million, of whom around 76 percent are Jews and 20 percent Arabs. Established as a homeland for the Jews after the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, Israel is a country of immigrants, with some 3.3 million settling there since 1948.The country offers citizenship to Jewish people everywhere, though the majority of its Arab citizens claim to be marginalized and not accorded full rights.
For instance, Arab spouses of Palestinian citizens in Israel cannot get permission to enter to Israel and to live with their spouses in Israel (no family reunification has been allowed since a legal amendment in 2003).
The Arab educational system in Israel is controlled and run by Jewish officials. No substantial involvement of the community itself.
Hebrew and Arabic. English is widely spoken. Language has become politicized as Arabic is not used in official public settings, like street signs, even though it is one of the two official languages. Nor is it permitted in Parliament, or in court. Arabic is not used in most government services. Only in Hebrew.
The Israel of ancient history was located in the Middle East and its main city, Jerusalem, has long been a holy place for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. In the 16th century, the region became part of the Ottoman Empire.
When the empire collapsed during World War I the area then known as Palestine was taken over by British troops and was formally placed under a British mandate in 1920, the product of Britain's conflicting promises of national self-rule to the Arab and Jewish statehood for Zionists.
In 1917, Britain published the Balfour Declaration, calling for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." By the time the British mandate ended in 1948, Jews had already settled there in large numbers, some buying land and others driving Arab families out of their homes and land. They proclaimed a state, which was consolidated during a brief war with their Arab neighbors.
In the 11 years leading up to the creation of the Jewish state, Zionist extremists who lived in Palestine under the British mandate carried out terror attacks against British authorities and Palestinian indigenous population as a military strategy to accelerate the establishment of Israel.
Over 57 terror attacks were carried out by terrorist groups Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi, killing over 5,000 Palestinians, dozens of British officers and assasinating U.N. personnel.
Most of the Zionist terrorist groups became the building blocks of Israel's political program, with Menachim Begin turning his Irgun group into a political party called Herut.
Israel subsequently fought two other major wars with surrounding Arab states, in 1967 and 1973. From 1967 on the United States became Israel's main ally, which it remains to this day. The country has invaded Lebanon several times, most recently in 2006 during a war with the Shiite Hezbollah movement, and in recurring conflicts with the Palestinians, the most recent of which was a massive 22-day military campaign in Gaza which ended on Jan. 18.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with no formal constitution. The Knesset, or parliament, has 120 members. The state president, currently Shimon Peres, has mainly ceremonial functions.
Arab Parties are not allowed to participate in the national election of they negate the right of Israel to be a "Jewish" state.
Marginalizing Arab political parties is the latest form of discrimination against Israel's Arab population. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, banned two Arab-Israeli parties from running in the upcoming elections, in a move to have an all-Jewish Knesset.
The ban will prevent more than half of the current Arab members of Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, from running for reelection in February.
Israel has few raw materials, but the country has a strong farming sector as well as a thriving high tech industry. The economy is heavily supported by aid from both the U.S. government and Jewish groups in the United States.
Israel enjoyed its longest-ever period of growth between 2003 and 2007, when it recorded a cumulated growth rate of 24 percent. Over the same period, its unemployment rate dropped from 11 percent to six percent in 2008. Gross national income per capita: $21,900 (World Bank, 2007).
Israel has by far the most powerful military in the Middle East with 176,500 active personnel and 565,000 reservists, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), and mandatory service requirements for men and women. It is widely known to possess nuclear weapons, although it has never formally admitted to doing so.