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How many times does it have to be said that integrating the large minority population is the major challenge facing Israeli society? A challenge more urgent and more difficult even than reaching a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Whereas peace with the Palestinians depends on decisions, difficult as they may be, to be taken by the Palestinian and Israeli leadership at the appropriate moment - the integration of the minorities in Israeli society is a long-term process, to be achieved over many years, that can be carried out only as the result of a determined and consistent government policy dedicated to that aim. No single decision can do it.

Furthermore, it is an illusion to think that the problem will solve itself once a peace settlement with the Palestinians has been reached. If anything, if significant progress has not been made by then, it will become even more difficult to solve. If a large segment of the country's population is alienated from the state and harbors hostile feelings to it, it will not make for a pleasant future for the State of Israel.

Sadly, despite desultory efforts made here and there, integration of Israel's minorities has never appeared as a priority on the agenda of successive Israeli governments. The single success story is the integration of the Druze and the small Circassian community as the result of David Ben-Gurion's decision many years ago to apply compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces to their young men.

Those three years of military service to the nation by their young men, followed among many by a career in the IDF and the police, have made these communities an integral part of Israeli society. The rest - Moslems and Christians - have essentially been ignored. They see Israel developing by leaps and bounds, and feel - rightly so - that their participation in this progress is minimal. Lately, for the nth time, the government is attempting to come to grips with the problems of the Bedouin population in the Negev.

There are about a quarter of a million Bedouin citizens in the State of Israel - close to 200,000 in the Negev - and they represent a quarter of the country's Moslem citizens. It is the Bedouin in the Negev that are the most disadvantaged of Israelis, at the lowest end of the scale when it comes to income, education and housing.

Of all the segments of the Israeli minority population, the integration of the Bedouin is by far the most difficult. For centuries they have followed a nomadic lifestyle and now find themselves in the midst of a modern industrial society without the skills needed to become productive members of this society. The age-old tradition of polygamy is still practiced among them; a father having a large number of children is commonplace, leading to parental neglect and delinquency.

Guiding the Bedouin into the 21st century is no simple matter. Teams of anthropologists, sociologists and architectural planners are needed to deal with the challenge of urbanization, the move from nomadic to urban life.

The conflict over land ownership in the Negev, which has persisted since the establishment of the State of Israel, though important, is not the central problem. Far more important is raising the level of education so as to allow the youth to acquire the skills needed in a modern high-technology society. Some progress has been made here, especially at Ben-Gurion University, but it is far too little considering the magnitude of the problem. Unless a high-priority, government-sponsored effort that will span the period from kindergarten to university is undertaken, the problems will continue to fester.

The Negev Bedouin have been neglected by the state. But into the vacuum left by the state has come storming from the north the Islamic Movement, preaching Palestinian nationalism and hostility to Israel. A population that in past years had felt attached to the State of Israel, many of whose young men had volunteered to serve in the IDF, is thus in the process of becoming fervently religious and alienated from the state. Mosques are now to be seen in every Bedouin village and encampment, and PLO flags are beginning to make their appearance in the Negev. The Islamic Movement is waging a campaign to discourage enlistment in the IDF. Things are going from bad to worse.

It is not too late for the government to enter the arena. The IDF can play an important and even central role in this effort. As has been shown time and again, the IDF can be a great social integrator, but it needs to receive direction from the government to play that role.