Immigration, "aliyah" in Hebrew, has long been a policy priority for Israeli governments that want to keep a big Jewish majority in a country where Arabs make up a fifth of the population and have a higher birth rate.The numbers of Jews wanting to move to Israel plunged after the start of the Palestinian uprising brought bloodshed to the streets and helped drive the economy into recession.
But attacks in Israel had begun to decline even before a truce was agreed in February, while economic reforms had helped return the economy to strong growth.
"We believe that the improvement in the security and economic situation will increase the feeling of security and ... aliyah will be on the rise in 2006 as well," said Zeev Bielski, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency.
The agency welcomed a planeload of more than 200 North Americans arriving at Tel Aviv's airport on Wednesday.
About 23,000 people immigrated in 2005, up from a 15-year low of 21,000 in 2004 and compared to 61,000 in 2000. No figures for emigration were immediately available.
FEWER JEWS FLEE PERSECUTIONIt is not only the situation in the Middle East that has made it harder to encourage immigration. Fewer Jews than before are fleeing persecution, war and poverty abroad.
Groups trying to encourage immigration have turned to North America. The United States alone has more Jews than in Israel. Canada also has a large Jewish population.
"Most aliyah until now was people running away from something -- Russians from Communism, Ethiopians from hunger," said Tony Gelbart of the Nefesh B'Nefesh (Soul to Soul) group.
"Aliyah from North America is by choice," he said.
A total of 3,052 North Americans immigrated in 2005 -- the highest number since 1983. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stated goal is to bring 1 million North American immigrants over the next decade.
But it has been difficult to convince U.S. and Canadian Jews to leave high-paying jobs for Israel, which has far lower wages, higher taxes and an unemployment rate of close to 9 percent, despite some financial incentives.
"It might be easier financially to live in America but it's more difficult to live there as a fulfilled Jew," said Josh Coder, 31, an accountant from Indianapolis who arrived in Israel on Wednesday with his wife, Jackie, and three children.
He decided to emigrate after losing his job.
In addition to North Americans, the Jewish Agency said immigration from France hit a 34-year record in 2005 with about 3,000 people. But immigration from the former Soviet states fell this year to about 9,000 from 10,000 in 2004.
© Reuters Foundation.