Aluf Benn / Israel's Arab Citizens - a Hidden Economic Treasure

If they obtain a suitable education and find good jobs, they will boost GDP growth in coming decade.

Israel is poor in natural resources, so its economic growth relies on the brainpower of its people. Since its founding the state has absorbed millions of Jewish immigrants, who supplied it with valuable human capital and created demand that drove the economy. But the reservoir of available candidates for immigration has emptied: It is impossible to entice a Jewish engineer from Chicago, Toronto or Paris to come to Israel and live in public housing in Kiryat Gat or Kiryat Yam, as the engineers and doctors who came from the former Soviet Union did. Immigration has hit a historic low, and there are no signs that this trend will reverse.

If so, where will economic growth come from in the coming decade? The answer can be found in the Galilee and the Triangle region. An economic treasure is hidden there, a gold mine whose potential has barely been tapped: Israel's Arab citizens. They constitute one-fifth of the country's inhabitants, a relatively young and poor population that wants to get ahead and is capable of doing so - hundreds of thousands of people who, if they obtain a suitable education and find good jobs, will send the Israel economy up a level.

The latest matriculation statistics published by the Education Ministry revealed a growing gap between the achievements of Jewish and Arab students. The public debate has focused on claims of discrimination against Arab children, but these statistics can also be viewed as a great opportunity. Investing another shekel in a high school in north Tel Aviv could perhaps raise its students' average on the matriculation exams by a few fractions of a percent. Investing that same shekel in Umm al-Fahm or Rahat would create a whole new group of tens of thousands of high school graduates and university students. Perhaps tomorrow's Nobel Prize winner is hiding among them?

Higher education is the most important factor in raising an individual's income and standard of living. Thousands of Arab university graduates employed in high-tech companies or other knowledge-based industries would create purchasing power, which in turn would develop Arab communities and drive the economy as a whole.

There is no need for another state commission of inquiry or bureaucratic task force. A few determined entrepreneurs are all that is needed to effect change in education. Anyone who does not believe this should listen to Elisha Yanay, CEO of Motorola Israel, describe how he and his colleagues in industry persuaded the government to establish a network of technology colleges, which increased the number of engineering and computer science graduates from 1,000 to 8,000 per year. That is what created the high-tech boom and made it possible.

The next challenge is to add another 1,000 or 2,000 Arab engineers and computer programmers. Imagine the added value each such engineer would contribute to the gross national product and their own community.

The first seeds of change have been visible in recent years in the growing entry of Arabs into "Jewish" workplaces: the pharmacist in the drugstore, the teller at the bank, the person at the customer service desk saying, "Hello, this is Mohammed, how can I help you?" But this is not enough.

A change in both mind-set and behavior will be needed before workplaces become truly open and integrated. For Jews, this means going outside their own social network, minimizing army talk and eschewing small acts of racism such as imitating Arab accents. Both sides will have trouble when there are terror attacks or Israel Defense Forces operations. But they have already proved their ability to overcome this.

Israel's economic future depends on integrating its Arab citizens. It is therefore hard to understand why the dialogue between the state and the Arab community is focusing solely on the past - one side proposing idiotic measures such as the Nakba bill, the other claiming to be oppressed and criticizing the symbols of the state. Coercion and whining, and pointless preoccupation with the past, will only perpetuate the gaps and drag the Israeli economy backward.

Economic growth would not obliterate either community's national feelings, nor would it make the conflict go away. But it would enable a more normal life and a higher standard of living for everyone, Arabs and Jews alike.

The Nakba bill, even in its new, softened version, is moronic. In the historical reckoning, awareness of the Nakba has already won: Just a decade or two ago the term was virtually unknown to Israeli Jews, and now it is an inextricable part of the lexicon. No legislation can put it back in the bottle.

Instead of spending its time trying to regulate Arab protest, the government would be better off thinking about how to develop the enormous potential of its Arab citizens. Only that, and not the suppression of free speech, can lead the Israeli economy to it next big success.