Basic Information

Formal Name: Medinat Yisrael ("State of Israel")

Prime Minister: Ariel Sharon

President: Moshe Katsav

Foreign Minister: Shimon Peres

Land Area: 20,330 sq km

Water Area: 440 sq km

Population: 5,842,454

Life Expectancy at Birth: Male - 76.57 years; Female - 80.67 years

Literacy (ability to read/write at 15+ years of age): Male - 97%; Female - 93%

Primary Religions: Jewish - 80.1%; Muslim (Suni) - 14.6%; Christian - 2.1%; Other - 3.2%

Labor Force: 2.3 million

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): Agriculture - 2%; Industry - 17%; Services - 81%

Purchasing Power Parity: US$105.4 billion

Per Capita Purchasing Power Parity: US$18,300

Inflation Rate: 1.3%

Exports: US$23.5 billion (software, cut diamonds, agricultural products, machinery and equipment, chemicals, textiles and apparel)

Imports: US$30.6 billion (military equipment, rough diamonds, investment goods, fuels, consumer goods, raw materials)

Government: Israel is a democratic republic. The country's system of government is based on British common law. Its parliament, the Knesset, consists of 120 members, elected for 4-year terms, under a system of proportional representation. The chief of state is the President, who is elected by the Knesset for a five-year term. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is elected for a four-year term. In 1996, the law was changed to allow the Prime Minister to be elected directly (i.e., in a separate ballot from Knesset candidates). However, on March 7, 2001, the Knesset passed an amendment that returned elections for Prime Minister to the pre-1996 system. Under this amendment, which took effect in 2003, the Israeli public once again votes only for Members of the Knesset; the Knesset, in turn, picks the Prime Minister.

Elections in Israel are by secret ballot. Also, freedom of speech and religion are guaranteed under Israeli law.

Health: As with its government, the health and cleanliness standards of Israel are up to Western standards. (Many Israeli pharmaceuticals are even licensed directly by the American FDA!) Except in some Arab areas, hospitals in Israel are all up to Western standards.

Language: Officially, Israel's two languages are Hebrew and Arabic. However, in practice, the country's two languages are Hebrew and English. Most signs in Israel are in Hebrew and English. Also, most Israelis speak Hebrew as their mother tongue, and English is the most popular second language.

Video: Video tapes in Israel are on the PAL system. By contrast, the U.S. and Canada are on the NTSC system. While they appear the same to the naked eye, an NTSC tape brought from North America won't play on an Israeli PAL VCR, and a PAL video tape brought from Israel won't play on an NTSC VCR in North America. However, many Israelis have multi-system VCR's, which will play NTSC tapes. (Also, many stores in North America will convert tapes brought from Israel from PAL to NTSC.) In addition, many of the video tapes sold in hotel gift shops in Israel are available in either PAL or NTSC format.

Electricity: Electricity in Israel is 220 voltage. Plugs are the same shape as those used in continental Europe (in places such as France and Belgium).

Currency: Israel's currency is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS). The current exchange rate is US$1 » 4.8 NIS. However, American dollars are used a great deal in Israel. For example, real estate prices are in dollars (and payment is in shekels, according to the current exchange rate). Also, many industries set their prices according to the current dollar-shekel exchange rate. In addition, many businesses gladly accept U.S. dollars. Tourists who purchase goods using foreign currency - at businesses authorized by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism (look for the sticker at the door) - can avoid paying the Value Added Tax (VAT), currently around 17%.