You probably don’t know about it if you rely on the Australian media, but over the past month, Israel has made a number of highly significant, indeed virtually unprecedented, announcements concerning government funding and investment for the Israeli Arab sector.
On December 30, Israel’s cabinet approved a five-year plan worth around $15 billion shekels (US$3.85 billion) for social and employment development for Israel’s Arab community. The plan seeks to improve education, public transportation, highway infrastructure, employment, public security, law enforcement, sports ands community services, as well as facilitate the future construction of tens of thousands of housing units in minority communities.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the plan a “significant addition designed to assist minority populations and reduce gaps.” Meanwhile, Israel’s Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel called it “an important and historic step”, adding, “For the first time, the government of Israel is changing the mechanism for funding ministries so that Israeli Arabs will get their fair share of the state budget.”
The importance of the plan and why it is a historic decision that seeks to transform Israel into a more just and equitable society is explained by Ron Gerlitz, the co-executive director of Sikkuy: the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, in an interview with Fathom:
“The main reason is that the core of this decision is an adjustment to public budgeting mechanisms. This is not a decision that increases a particular budget to close gaps temporarily, on a one-time basis. Rather, this decision determines that 20 different budget mechanisms, some of which are significant, will allocate budgets to Arab citizens according to their proportion in the overall population. These include budget mechanisms in fields such as infrastructure, employment and industry, transportation, some components of the educational budget, housing and others. In addition, affirmative action – of up to 30 per cent – will be taken in order to compensate for the discrimination that has existed until now.”
As Gerlitz suggests, this really appears to be a watershed policy that goes much further than what any Israeli government before has done to improve equality between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Yet it has recieved very little international attention – and virtually none in the mainstream Australian media – perhaps because it does not fit an international narrative which sees the current government as incorrigibly “right-wing”, and which constantly focuses on and repeats generally grossly exaggerated or tendentious claims that the government’s agenda threatens Israel democracy.
Israeli Arab leaders welcomed the plan but some expressed a degree of scepticism. Leader of the Arab Joint List party, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, insisted that “We need to follow implementation of the plan”; while Joint List Knesset member Yousef Jabareen commented that he is concerned the plan does not specify the precise budget for each of its provisions and said it “falls way short of our over [US$7.68 billion] plan.”
Regarding housing initiatives, on January 12 Israel’s Construction Minister Yoav Galant announced that the ministry had formed a special section to deal with the problem of insufficient housing in the Arab and minority communities of the country’s North, and said it will coordinate implementation of development plans with local authorities. The housing plan is also expected to address the ongoing problem of unauthorised construction in Arab neighbourhoods.
Minister Galant said, ”In the coming years, thousands of housing units will be built in the Arab sector”, adding, “Prosperity of the Arab sector is in the interest of Israeli society as a whole.” Following a meeting with Galant, Imad Dahle, the head of the municipality of Turan, an Arab town, said that the construction of 1,000 housing units is scheduled to be completed in a month.
Israel’s National Council for Building and Planning has also recently approved the establishment of a new Druze town that will initially comprise 400 housing units in the Naftaly Estate area, near Tiberias. This will be the first new Druze town to be built in Israel since 1948, and it will be the first time in 130 years that a new Druze community will be established in the territory of what is now Israel. There are currently 18 Druze towns recognised by Israel – four in the Golan and 14 in the Galilee.
Arabs comprise nearly 21% of Israel’s 8.46 million population and, in recent years, have generally been becoming better integrated into Israeli society. Israeli Arabs have entered every profession – they are doctors, lawyers, scientists, accountants and academics, and an increasing number are serving in Israel’s Defence Forces, especially amongst the Christian, Druze and Bedouin communities. Affirmative action and government-sponsored support programs have also seen a sharp rise in the percentage of Israeli Arabs – and especially Arab women – in the make up of the student body at Israeli universities in recent years, and this looks likely to soon reach parity with their percentage of the population.
However, according to Tel Aviv University, Israeli Arabs comprise only 13% of Israel’s civilian labor force, while figures show that 75% of Arab men work, compared to just 33% of Arab women. Apart from their general commitment to democratic equality, Israeli policy makers came to realise that the Israeli economy would be severely disadvantaged if Israeli Arabs were not better integrated into the workforce. As Gerlitz explains:
“… this theoretical understanding among the professional staff in the [Israeli] Budget Division was transformed to a feeling of urgency, almost panic about the fate of Israel’s economy if Arabs are not to be a part of it. They also understand that in order for integration to occur, they are obliged to close the gaps in education (from kindergarten to university), infrastructure, transportation and more fields. This feeling of panic ignited the most impressive staff work ever seen in government ministries, in order to construct a coherent plan to close the gaps between the Jewish and Arab citizens. The plan was designed by the programme officers in the Budget Division of the Ministry of Finance and the Authority for Economic Development for the Arab Citizens (led by Aiman Saif).”
The plan was also pushed forward by Minister for Finance Moshe Kahlon and received support from Prime Minister Netanyahu.
However, in recent months there has been increasing tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel due to a wave of Palestinian terror attacks. Over the past four months, three Israeli Arabs out of 1.5 million have committed acts of terror. One of these acts was the shooting attack on a crowded Tel Aviv bar on January 1 that killed two people.
And while there is reported to be growing support for ISIS amongst Israeli Arabs, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center regarding how local populations across the Middle East relate to the Islamic State, Israel’s Muslim community came in second (after Lebanon) with 97% of participants saying that they oppose ISIS, and only 1% saying they were sympathisers. In contrast, 6% of Muslims inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip expressed support for ISIS and 84% opposed it.
Moreover, according to a poll by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), 70% percent of the Arab citizens identified with being “Israeli” in some form or another, be that as an “Arab with Israeli citizenship,” an “Israeli Arab,” or even a “Palestinian Israeli.” Only 30 percent of those polled left out “Israel” when defining themselves, preferring to be identified as “Arabs,” “Muslims,” “Christians,” or – in five percent of the sample – just “Palestinian.”
Many Israeli Arabs may look around at the turbulent region, and appreciate living in a liberal democratic country, which declares equal rights for all its citizens, irrespective of their race, gender or religion. However, unfortunately discrimination exists in every society, and there is growing recognition amongst Israeli politicians that Israel must do more to improve equality of opportunity for its Arab citizens. As Prof. Amnon Rubinstein – veteran law professor and former Cabinet minister – writes in Israel Today:
“I believe the shift among Israeli Arabs stems from their deep disappointment from the Arab world and their slow, hesitant integration in Israeli society and economy. For the first time in years, the heads of Arab local authorities have voiced their unequivocal support for cooperating with Israel and the Jews, and have urged their publics to abandon the paths of conflict.”
Prof. Rubinstein cites as examples comments by the Mayor of the Bedouin town of Rahat Talal Al-Krenawi and Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam. Salam said in October:
“I’m a Palestinian Israeli. We are originally Palestinian and we’re Israeli citizens. I have no problem living in peace in a state with a Jewish majority, and I’m telling you that 99% of the Arabs are like me. This is my country and I’ve never thought ill of Israel. It doesn’t mean I’m not upset about what’s happening with the Palestinians … but we can’t allow extremists on either side to set the country on fire.”
Prof. Rubinstein, who has generally been on the Israeli left, supports the government’s plan to increase investment in the Israeli Arab sector, and suggests other options to accelerate coexistence initiatives including via joint bilingual studies, Israeli Arab colleges, voluntary national service, and expanding the jurisdiction of the local Arab authorities.
Boosting investment in the Arab sector not only closes gaps with predominantly Jewish sectors, but also encourages peaceful coexistence in Israel. While there is still a long way to go, these initiatives reflect that Israel’s policy makers are beginning to prioritise the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens. As Israel’s President Reuben Rivlin said, “This decision of the government will strengthen the resilience of the entirety of Israel’s society, it will strengthen Israel’s economy, and will contribute to improving the trust between the citizens of Israel, and their state.”