Two Ministers' Draconian Plot to Sabotage Overdue Arab Development Plan

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An illustration depicting Minister Elkin holding a pile of money out of MK Odeh's reach.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman

The ministerial committee that deals with Israel’s Arab population, chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was scheduled to meet on Wednesday. The meeting was canceled, however, following the terrorist attack at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, in which a border policewoman was killed, and Netanyahu convened a security meeting instead. The agenda of the meeting that wasn’t held included a discussion on recommendations of a panel of ministerial directors general on how to implement the 15-billion shekel ($3.75 billion), five-year plan to assist the Arab community that was approved by the government more than a month ago.

Two days after the approval was given, an Israeli Arab, Nashat Melhem, perpetrated the terror attack on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu panicked. He was concerned about how his constituency and some of his ministers would react to the rather volatile confluence of two events: an Israeli Arab’s murder of Jews, and a decision to give Israeli Arabs funding.

The prime minister got cold feet. It happens to him sometimes. He appointed ministers Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin, two of Likud’s most extreme right-wingers with respect to Arabs, to recommend the conditions to be imposed on the Arab locales designated in the plan – which have been the victims of government neglect for decades – if they want to get the coveted funds.

Levin and Elkin, both professionals with an entrenched political and personal agenda, held a series of meetings with the relevant experts. The sheet of “recommendations” they came up with is a modern version of Pharaoh’s decrees. Even some cabinet ministers described them as “draconian” and “off the wall.”

It’s worth perusing the column published this week in these pages by Likud veteran Moshe Arens. He says the government must not make allocation of resources to the Arab public contingent on other issues, such as dealing with illegal building. The money must be transferred immediately and the problems addressed at the same time, he wrote. 

Search for “Likud” in Wikipedia and you’ll discover that the party’s full name is “Likud – National Liberal Movement.” In the Elkin-Levin era, “liberal” is a dirty word, and “national” gets the suffix “-ist.” The document the two ministers produced reflects a patronizing, condescending style, and includes a lengthy list of reservations aimed at torpedoing and basically voiding the government’s welcome decision vis-a-vis the Arab population. For example, every local authority in which a building infraction occurs will lose its funding (although the government never denied generous funding to illegally constructed settlements and settler outposts in the territories).

With regard to the issue of civilian service, the recommendation is that any Arab local authority that fails to meet the arbitrary recruitment goals set for it in this regard will also not receive money. Hitting them in their pockets – which anti-Semites say is the best way to hurt Jews – more or less sums up the spirit of the document. Elkin also insisted on adding a series of conditions concerning the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which the government claims are an integral part of the united city.

Levin and Elkin were astounded to learn – and by chance – that the ministerial committee set to meet on Wednesday would deal only with the recommendations of the directors general. They demanded to meet with the directors general of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry, and present their document. The two, Eli Groner (PMO) and Shai Babad (treasury), didn’t like what they heard. They thought that their own recommendations were sufficient and that, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Before the postponement of the meeting was announced, I spoke with the leader of the Joint Arab List, MK Ayman Odeh. He sounded despairing, worn out and pessimistic. 

“We held 70 meetings with the treasury, 20 of them with [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon himself. We were successful and arrived at understandings, and then Netanyahu’s conditions came along,” Odeh said. “I spoke to every possible person to urge against the creation of obstacles: to Kahlon, to [deputy finance minister] Itzik Cohen, to Elkin and Levin, to Gila Gamliel [a Likud MK and minister for social equality, who was instrumental in devising the plan for the Arab community and rejects the conditions]. I even called President [Reuven] Rivlin to ask for his help.”

I asked Odeh what he was suggesting. “There are four main clauses [in the Elkin-Levin list of conditions],” he said. “The first is the collection of illegal firearms. For years, we have begged the police to come into our towns and put an end to that phenomenon. Dozens of Arab citizens have been killed by the use of firearms, and we certainly don’t have to be persuaded that that’s important.

“Second,” Odeh continued, relates to the issue of “building density, or high-rise construction. We do not object [to increasing density]. All the Gulf states, and also Cairo and Ramallah have building density. But for that you need appropriate infrastructures. You need comprehensive planning. It can’t be imposed as a punishment.

“The third issue is national service, for which they want to impose quotas. There are Jewish communities in which only 45 percent of the eligible young people are drafted, and I haven’t heard that Elkin and Levin are planning sanctions against them if they don’t meet a quota. This constitutes a politicization of volunteering. We have volunteers, too, and we also fear unemployment. A national-service volunteer will do for free what another young person does for money. We have to talk about that.

“The fourth issue,” the MK said, “is the demolition of illegally built houses. There are 50,000 houses lacking permits in the Arab locales. Since Israel’s establishment, 700 new communities have been built, all for Jews, zero for Arabs. People live in in appallingly overcrowded conditions, and are forced to build illegally. Two weeks ago, I met with Netanyahu and submitted a proposal. Instead of the state demolishing four-five houses a year, as it does now – whereas we are capable of building 50 new ones every three months – we, the Arab politicians and public leaders, will come to the local authorities with the demand that for a full year not even one house be built illegally. During that period, we will set up a joint team, with members from the Arab population and from the government, and we will decide on legalization and planning. We will solve the problems together.”

An interesting suggestion, I told Odeh. How did the prime minister respond? “That’s exactly what he said,” Odeh told me, “‘a very, very interesting proposal.’ I haven’t heard from him since.”

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