After twice failing to get a cabinet majority, the government on Wednesday approved an ambitious 15 billion shekel ($3.85 billion) program for social and employment development for Israel’s Arab community.
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Ministers unanimously approved the five-year plan, which seeks to address shortcomings in everything from housing to health, with only minor changes. A proposal to include mixed Arab-Jewish cities like Jerusalem, which had threatened to scuttle the entire program, was not included.
Gila Gamliel, the minister for social equality and one of the plan’s backers, called it “an important and historic step” toward closing the social gaps between Israeli Arabs, who constitute about a fifth of the population, and Jews.
“The program that was approved is very comprehensive and relates to all areas that touch on local authorities and Israel’s Arab citizens,” she said. “For the first time, the government of Israel is changing the mechanism for funding ministries so that Israeli Arabs will get their fair share of the state budget.”
The cabinet had previously been deadlocked after Likud ministers led by Ofir Akunis and Miri Regev demanded that mixed cities get a share of the extra spending. The demand led to sharply worded exchanges between the ministers.
The plan had originally stipulated that local authorities entitled to extra money and other assistance had to be at least 80% Arab.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, another of the plan’s backers, entered the debate, saying the program was going to be costly and couldn’t be expanded. It needed to focus on Arab communities where the need was greatest, he said.
The minor changes inserted into the plan, mainly at the behest of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, deal with encouraging high-density housing in Arab municipalities and incentives for Arabs to serve in the army, among other clauses.
Arab local authorities typically get far less state aid than Jewish authorities. For example, they get only 7% of the government’s budget for public transportation, while only 59.5% of students in the Arab school system are eligible for matriculation certificates, as opposed to 75.1% in the Jewish secular and state religious systems.
The extra funding, as well as government committees that will address problems facing the Arab sector, will focus on housing, transportation, education and health.