LOD, Israel (Reuters) - Immigration to Israel hit its lowest in 18 years in 2006 due to a drop in the number of Jews arriving from former Soviet states, although immigration from North America edged higher, figures showed on Wednesday.
Some 21,000 made "aliya", the Hebrew word for immigrating to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, which promotes immigration. The 2006 figure was the lowest since 13,000 in 1988. A total of 22,657 people moved to Israel in 2005.
The agency said it was getting harder to bring immigrants out of countries that made up the former Soviet Union, from where more than one million people moved to Israel in the 1990s. The number for 2006 was 7,300 -- about 23 percent down on 2005.
"These people are no longer running away from something," said Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, explaining the decline.
The agency played down suggestions that the war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas during the summer had a negative impact on immigration -- which had grown recently after a sharp drop following the start of a Palestinian uprising in 2000.
The government places great significance on immigration amid concerns in Israel that without an influx of foreign Jews the country's Arab minority, which has a higher birth rate, could eventually outnumber the Jewish population.
Jews constitute 76 percent of Israel's population of just over 7 million people, while Arabs make up nearly a fifth.
No figures were immediately available for the number of people emigrating from Israel in 2006.
Forecasts earlier this year were for immigration to grow to 24,000, but Jankelowitz said expectations were not met because the government had not brought as many Jews from Ethiopia as originally planned.
With the decline in numbers of immigrants from elsewhere, the Jewish Agency has made particular efforts to bring immigrants from Europe and North America.
That means trying to persuade people to move on ideological grounds rather than as a way to flee economic hardship or repression.
Aliya from North America rose to 3,200 in 2006 from 2,900 in 2005 and just 1,700 four years ago. Immigration from Britain rose to 720 this year from 481 last year. About 2,900 came from France, slightly down on 2005.
"We would love bigger numbers but we have to live in reality," Jankelowitz said.
On Wednesday, about 220 North Americans landed in Israel. Another group landed from London. Among those who arrived were Simcha and Rachel Gluck from New York, who gave up a thriving knife sales business.
"Life is not all about money," said Simcha Gluck. "It's about quality of life. America is awesome but we are Jews first."