Jpost – Opinion
By Kenneth Bandler / July 3, 2017
Improving relations between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens is a priority too important to wait for permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is why non-governmental organizations, many created and led jointly by Arabs and Jews, have long worked to build the trust and deepen the understanding necessary for cooperation between Israel’s majority and minority populations.
Building a shared society requires validation at the highest levels of government that the needs of the country’s Arab citizens are top priorities. Encouragement came in January 2016, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition unanimously approved Government Resolution 922, a five-year, $4 billion plan to bring the socioeconomic status of Arab citizens up to par with the general population.
Heralded at the time as “historic” and “unprecedented” for its breadth, vision and commitment of resources, the plan was developed while Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had again reached an impasse, and is today being implemented in the absence of progress in the peace process. The plan is based on official recognition that Israel benefits from an engaged Arab citizenry. Indeed, the booming hi-tech sector, in which Arab citizens are increasingly employed, is but one example.
Several areas showing progress – housing, transportation and employment – have been priorities for the Authority for Economic Development of the Minorities, established 10 years ago in the Prime Minister’s Office and currently playing a key role in implementing 922. A new report by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues provides valuable details.
Improving the bus system servicing Arab communities is critical to enable greater access to higher education, employment and integration into the Israeli economy. In the first plan year, the Transportation Ministry reported a 15% increase in the number of public transportation rides by Arab citizens, as compared to 3% among the overall population, thanks to the creation of 44 new bus lines and expansion of 153 existing ones.
To address the housing shortage in Arab communities, the 922 plan has focused first on improving municipal planning capacities so that they can draw up, in cooperation with the government, master urban plans. The lack of such plans, combined with shortages of available land, has accentuated the housing problem. In 2016, 56 Arab municipalities signed cooperation agreements with the government that will lead to the construction of new housing and public spaces.
Discrepancies in education budgets have created gaps between Arabs and Jews in the percentage of young people matriculating from high school and being accepted to colleges and universities. The amounts the Education Ministry has been providing Arab elementary schools has been 23% less than those given to Jewish schools, and at the high school level the difference rises to 43%.
Under the 922 plan, the Education Ministry has several projects to enhance the quality of Arab schools, notably the strengthening of education in grades K-12 to better prepare students for university. This dovetails with Israel’s Council of Higher Education’s ongoing program to boost Arab access to higher educational institutions, which will lead, in turn, to growth in Arab employment.
With 26% of Arab women employed compared with 73% of Jewish women, the 922 plan provides increased subsidies for daycare centers and the construction of additional daycare facilities; the expansion of employment centers that connect Israeli employers with job seekers; and other measures to encourage employers to hire qualified Arab workers.
Crime and security have been longstanding issues in Arab communities, straining the capacity of local authorities. Under the 922 plan, the Internal Security Ministry is recruiting Arab men and women to serve as police officers, and upgrading existing police stations and establishing new ones in Arab communities. The goal is 600 new Arab police recruits by the end of the five-year plan. In addition, a police division to deal specifically with the Arab population, and headed by a Muslim Arab, has been created, and the Internal Security Ministry is expanding the use of Arabic in social media and other forms of communication.
Other vital areas covered by the 922 plan include health, water resources, and economic development in Arab communities. As Moshe Arens, former defense minister and adviser to the prime minister on Israeli Arab affairs, observed soon after 922 was approved, “The State of Israel is making a determined attempt to equalize conditions for all its citizens, Arab and Jewish. Some would say that this decision is long overdue, but all should appreciate that it finally came, and that it is part of a process, which by its nature is gradual and therefore takes time.”
In the end, the success of 922 depends on a total buyin by the citizens directly affected, as they experience real improvements in their daily lives. So far so good, according to the Inter-Agency Task Force, which, in its report, emphasized that “the level of transparency, coordination and cooperation between the central government and Arab mayors continue to be a high point of plan implementation.”
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.