'I want to succeed with this plan'
He has devised, and is now implementing, a bold initiative that will pump NIS 800 million into economic development of the Arab sector. Meet Ayman Saif, who is used to playing on Jewish turf and has won the prime minister?s trust and support.
One may certainly be confused by this scenario. Ayman Saif wonders what happened with all the Ashkenazi Jews around him. They all have four children, and they're always trying to persuade him that he and his wife should have more kids. "And while I'm stuck with two kids, I almost didn't agree to the third one on its way," he laughs.
Saif, 41, a Muslim, lives in the town of Ar'ara, in the Wadi Ara section of the Lower Galilee. He holds a degree in economics and an MBA from universities in Germany. His wife has an M.A. in education and currently works for the Education Ministry's Arab sector. He attended Hadassim high school, which has a predominantly Jewish student body, because he wanted a high-quality education in a Hebrew-speaking environment. The man who led him to Hadassim was his father, a bookkeeper who has been running his own tax advisory firm in Hadera for dozens of years (and also studied in a Jewish school, Mikveh Yisrael). Saif's two children are currently studying in a joint Arab-Jewish school.
In short, Saif is an upwardly mobile Arab professional, someone who is making every effort to integrate into and live as an equal among equals in Jewish society.
Saif has spent his entire professional life working among Jews, specifically among other civil-service employees. He was one of the first in his field to be hired by the Israeli government, not long after then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin announced the creation of 80 new positions designated for Arab economists. Following Rabin's assassination, however, most of them were relieved of their duties in the government. Saif and one other colleague remained, and he was later reassigned to the Prime Minister's Office.
In 2008, he was chosen to be the point man in establishing and managing a new agency dedicated to spearheading economic development in Arab, Druze, Bedouin and Circassian communities. Operating under the auspices of the PMO, the authority is charged with advancing various government efforts, and constitutes the state's first attempt to improve the lot of these groups, which statistically are the poorest in Israel today.
Do the security guards give you trouble every time you need to enter the PMO?
Saif: "They're already used to it. So am I. It wasn't easy in the beginning. We were a very small number of Arabs who worked together in the office, and there are many sensitivities in a lot of areas that are dealt with in the PMO. Ultimately, though, it depends on the individual and his attitude."
Late last month, Saif, who answers to Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman (whose office operates within the PMO), unveiled a plan for boosting the economy in these minority sectors, which among other things earmarks NIS 800 million for development projects in 12 Arab municipalities over the course of the next five years. Half of that sum will come directly from the treasury's coffers.
The comprehensive initiative includes proposals to alleviate unemployment, improve public transportation, provide housing and combat growing violence among minorities. The plan also features detailed modes of action, statistical goals and the establishment of a supervisory board whose task is to oversee its execution. If the plan bears fruit, the government is likely to expand it to the entire minority sector in another two years. The man who planned the undertaking, and has been appointed to supervise its implementation, is Ayman Saif.
Bottom line: Do the Arabs lag behind the Jews due to cultural difficulties or because of discrimination?
"There is no doubt that the gaps between the two populations are very large. This is immediately seen when comparing the percentage of those who are in the workforce. Just 40 percent of the Arab sector works, while in the Jewish sector the figure is 60 percent. The gap stems primarily from the number of working women: Just 21 percent of Arab women have jobs, compared to 57 percent of Jewish women."
Is this because Arab men do not want to see their wives leave the home and find work?
"This is a mistaken point of view. The main reason that Arab women do not work is a lack of available jobs in or nearby Arab towns."
That is because most of the villages are concentrated in the outlying areas of the country, where Jews also have trouble finding work.
"It is correct to say that living in outlying areas exacerbates the problem. We are seeing that, among Arab women in Jaffa for example, the level of participation in the workforce is 40 percent. It is still lower than it is for Jewish women, but it is double the average rate for Arab women in general in the country. The conclusion is obvious. This is not a cultural issue. Women want to work, but they have no available jobs, no public transportation and no day-care centers where they can leave their children."
What about the higher education obstacle?
"There is a clear link between the level of education and success in finding a job. Of all working Arab women, 68 percent have college degrees, which is less than the 81 percent level among Jewish women who work. We see significant improvement in the level of education in the Arab sector, even for women. Within a decade, there was a 150-percent spike in the number of people from minorities who completed their degrees. This is also true of women."
Do Arab women have a chance of closing the gaps? After all, the educational system in the sector is not all that impressive.
"This is true, particularly with regard to the statistics on overcrowding in classrooms. But we are seeing significant improvement here. Out of 8,000 new classrooms that are being built today in the school system, 3,200 of them are intended for the Arab sector. Even the 'New Horizons' educational reform was first introduced in Arab schools. There is still much work to do, because the truth is that the percentage of kids dropping out of school is high and the percentage of students who qualify for a matriculation certificate is low. But at least we are seeing that the Education Ministry is aware of this and is pouring resources into narrowing the gaps."
Yet even when one takes into account the cultural glass ceilings or the disadvantageous geographical location of the majority of Arab villages, the Arab population in the outlying areas continues to underperform in economic terms when compared to their Jewish counterparts nearby. Part of the problem can undoubtedly be attributed to discrimination. For years, successive Israeli governments have neglected to develop industrial regions in Arab towns. The most glaring example is that of the Tziporit industrial zone, which was built on land belonging to Arab villages, but was later incorporated into the municipality of Upper Nazareth, a predominantly Jewish town.
Why was Upper Nazareth built as a separate town rather than as part of the existing Arab city of Nazareth? Did this stem from political considerations connected to the aim of "Judaizing" the Galilee?
"You'll have to ask the politicians that. I don't talk about issues like Judaization of the Galilee."
So why are there almost no industrial zones in Arab villages? Why is there almost no public transportation? According to government statistics, 62 Arab villages lack access to public transportation, while 60 others have only a minuscule amount. Overall, 80 percent of Arab towns and municipalities have no reliable public transportation.
"I don't know why this is. Even the transportation minister could not explain this to the prime minister. What is important now is that we are soliciting bids for private operators, who will enter these Arab towns with minibuses and transport people to areas where there are jobs available. This will not only enable Arab women, most of whom do not drive, to get to their workplaces; it will also create jobs for those operating the transport services.
"I don't think that we should build industrial zones in every Arab village. It's obvious to me that there is no justification for this from a financial standpoint. But at least there should be public transportation that will allow someone to get to an industrial zone in a neighboring village or in the next town. If you want to allow people to find work, access through transportation is a must."
There are rumors that some bus companies have complained of vandalism against their stations in Arab villages, and thus they do not want to enter them.
"Crime is rampant within Arab towns and it is destroying everything good that's happening. It's awful what's going on, with illegal weapons falling into the hands of children, and with rising violence. The police must beef up its presence in the Arab villages, and this is the reason we allotted NIS 150 million for a plan to reinforce the police presence there."
What do upwardly mobile Arabs like yourself do? Do you run away to mixed cities?
"No. We build fences, install alarms and 'absorb the blows.'"
Another area in which the Arab sector lags behind considerably is child care. Just 5 percent of Arab babies (up to age 3) are currently enrolled in a child-care facility. This is undoubtedly a significant factor in preventing Arab women from entering the workforce. Saif: "There simply aren't any established child-care facilities. In recent years, the Industry and Trade Ministry has begun to understand that the situation is intolerable, and it began providing incentives for people to create pre-nursery playgroups." Some 460 of these were actually established, he notes.
It is the local municipalities first and foremost that have to assume the burden of assuring there are child-care centers.
"True, and this is the heart of the problem. The Industry and Trade Ministry is subsidizing the day-care centers, but demanding that the local authority put up 25 percent of the budget. The problem is that the Arab municipalities are so weak that they don't have the means to provide their portion. The Eckstein Committee, which deals with formulating policy for encouraging employment, has looked at the problem of day-care centers in weaker municipalities. It is coming to the conclusion that it should waive the 25-percent demand for the weaker towns, and reduce the requirement to between five and 10 percent. So the ministry is ready to invest NIS 1 billion in building day-care centers - an astronomical sum that will give a clear preference to the weaker local councils. Most of the latter are Arab municipalities.
"Another problem that came to light is the issue of part-time jobs. The ministry grants women subsidies for day-care centers if they work a full day, whereas most Arab women work in part-time jobs and need day care only until the afternoon hours. The Eckstein Committee recommends that the state also subsidize part-time day care."
Let's be honest. The crux of the problem seems to be more the ineffectiveness of the Arab local councils.
"There's no doubt that the Arab municipalities have contributed immensely to the situation in which they find themselves in. It's impossible to blame just the national government, and a large part of the blame can be attributed to the unprofessional management norms of the municipalities themselves. There wasn't enough attention paid to training decent management personnel, and there is also the problem of clans, which leads to bad hiring practices. So our plan is based on full cooperation with the municipality heads. We will work closely with the councils, and will establish joint professional management bodies which will include training qualified personnel to work with the new businesses established in these towns. The heart of the program is the founding of a local economic forum [in each of the 12 towns], which will be comprised of professionals, and this forum will be led by the municipality's head. Together we will formulate a multi-year plan to promote the economy of that municipality."
'What do you expect?'
For the plan, you chose large towns that are relatively affluent and whose municipalities are by comparison managed fairly well. It seems you are making your lives pretty easy.
"What do you expect? I want to succeed with this plan, not to fail."
If I may be so bold, there are quite a number of Jews who think that the Arabs don't deserve government aid because they don't pay taxes. The payment of government and municipal taxes in Arab towns is very low.
"That is correct. The rate of collection of municipal taxes in Arab towns is 30-40 percent, as opposed to 60-80 percent in Jewish municipalities. [The rate of collection is relative, given that weaker municipalities are charged lower municipal taxes.] There is no doubt that we need to collect more taxes, but the major problem is in the way the tax burden is divided. Nearly all of the municipal taxes in the Arab municipalities are collected from residences, and this is because there are no industrial lots or commercial centers nearby. On the other hand, 60 percent of municipal tax in Jewish towns comes from commercial entities. The big money is in business, so even if Arab municipalities were to begin collecting 80 percent of municipal taxes, they would still lack sufficient resources to serve their constituents. So our plan strives to increase the sources of money for municipalities by way of developing industrial zones and by encouraging investors to pour money into industry and commerce in Arab villages. In addition, we are making more housing available, which will boost revenue from municipal taxes paid by more residents."
Why is the rate of municipal tax collection so low?
"Because people grew accustomed to not paying, and the authorities did not impose any punishment against those who did not pay. Today there's a change in progress, with collection companies being used, and the levying of penalties against those who do not pay. But the situation is still not good enough."
When you speak of investing in industrial zones, do you mean new ones outside of the villages?
"I mean developing zones currently in existence but which suffer from neglect. I also want to try and build new industrial zones on privately owned land in the towns."
You mean there won't be new territory allocated to Arab towns for this purpose?
Which brings us to the most painful point about the plan: It contains all the elements except the one that Arab villages are most in need of - expansion of their boundaries so as to increase the area under their jurisdiction. The State of Israel, which years ago declared as one its national goals raising the Jewish proportion of the population of the Galilee, has throughout its history sought to limit the expansion of Arab towns. To this day, it continues to stifle any attempts by such locales to widen their borders, even though it is clear to all that the overcrowding there is intolerable. This issue threatens to be a political, religious and nationalist flashpoint.
Saif is very selective with his words: "The issue of the approval of master plans and the denial of any possibility of municipal expansion of Arab towns has without a doubt seriously hampered the villages' and the population's standard of living, and it has created the problem of illegal construction. The expansion of jurisdictional areas in these towns is vital because there are many villages that are suffocating. A city like Tira, for example, does not have even a single dunam of administrative land, and it simply does not have anywhere to grow crops."
Then what is to be done?
"The Interior Ministry needs to deal with this. They claim that by the end of this year they will okay 80 percent of the new master plans of Arab villages. Some of these new plans will include the expansion of municipal boundaries."
Do you believe that the Israeli government will allow this to happen?
"I'm a state worker. I don't respond to political questions."
The economic development plan elegantly avoids dealing with the problem of municipal boundary expansion by attempting to encourage more efficient utilization of the areas already under the towns' jurisdiction. In other words, more saturation building. Doesn't this stand in contradiction to the traditional Arab culture and building style?
"Saturation building is done in Arab towns without our involvement, but it happens at a very slow pace. We want to encourage massive, yet organized building on both administrative land and privately owned land, while providing significant government subsidies, ranging from NIS 25,000 to NIS 40,000 per unit. We will need to push this along with information campaigns because it's clear that this will not be easy. The Housing Ministry recently issued a tender for the building of 12-story units, each of which will include a commercial center at the ground level. Not one contractor put in a bid because Arabs simply do not live in overcrowded high-rise apartments. So now we are redefining saturation building to mean four housing units per dunam of land. This congestion is enough to yield 5,000 new housing units, of which the Arab sector is in dire need."
And what will become of the illegal construction currently taking place in the villages?
"When the Interior Ministry finishes formulating its master plans, we will go into the municipalities and help in preparing detailed plans tailored to their specific townships, because without detailed plans, it is impossible to build. I would assume that a large chunk of the problem of illegal construction will be solved in this way."
Does Saif mean to say that the detailed plans will retroactively legalize most of the illegal construction in the Arab villages? One can only venture a guess that it would.
The housing shortage plaguing the minority communities is not just a by-product of a lack of available lands and a dearth of approved plans, but also due to a lack of available credit. The banks are not willing to extend mortgages to Arabs, nor are they eager to financially involve themselves with real estate projects. Saif denies that the banks' reluctance stems from cultural gaps that