The five-year, 30 billion-shekel ($9.4 billion) socioeconomic development program for the Arab community that the Israeli cabinet approved this week is regarded by the government as a flagship undertaking. Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen and United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas, who promoted the plan, called it a “historic” step towards equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel. But not everyone agrees.
The program, which was approved after weeks of deliberation, will run from 2022 to 2026. It's a follow-up program to Plan 922, which the cabinet approved in 2015, and is aimed at addressing issues that the earlier undertaking didn’t, such as health care, social welfare and education. Twenty-one ministries have signed on to the new program.
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‘Taibeh won’t turn into Ra’anana’
Presenting the program, Abbas said it would foster socioeconomic development, help reduce the disparities between Jews and Arabs and address the problems facing Israel’s Arab minority. "Implementing the plan and taking advantage of the resources at our disposal benefits all of Israeli society. It isn’t coming at the expense of other deprived sectors and populations,” he said.
Cohen spoke about a more ambitious goal: “We want to change the rules of the game so it is more equal for Jews and Arabs alike," she said.
But not everyone shares that optimism. Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the largely Arab Joint List, acknowledged at a meeting of his Knesset faction, which is in the opposition, that the new program would bring benefits to Arab society. But, he added, “there’s not a major difference” between it and Plan 922.
“It’s several billion shekels more and includes [funding] for Bedouin and Druze,” Odeh said, but "nothing is being invested in economic growth, no hospitals, no universities and no new Arab city.” As he sees it, it's part of an overall budget that does harm to the disadvantaged and entrenches the occupation. “We need to ask whether ordinary citizens gain or lose from this budget," he said, and added: “They will certainly lose.”
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Among experts in the Arab sector, opinions are divided on the value of the program. Ala Ghantous, an economic adviser to the Committee of Arab Local Authority Heads, who was involved in designing the program over the past several months, called it “unprecedented.”
He said that the development of the plan included input from his committee and various Arab civil society groups, which provided government ministries with a list of “justified and well-founded” needs, supported by research and data.
“A very large percentage of our recommendations were reflected in the final plan,” Ghantous said. “We also undertook a process of learning the lessons from [Plan] 922 and its shortcomings, so that this time we expect we’ll be using the money we have more effectively.”
Ghantous admitted that the real test of its effectiveness is in its implementation, but he expressed optimism. “I believe that Arab citizens will already begin to feel the change during 2022 because so many different projects will be getting underway,” he said. “Still, anyone who expects that implementation of the program will turn Taibeh into Ra’anana and Majd al-Krum into Carmiel will be disappointed," he said contrasting Arab and Jewish towns. "The gaps are large and they can’t be closed in five years or 10 years.”
Food insecurity and low employment rates
Arab society suffers the full gamut of social welfare problems. Data from the National Insurance Institute for 2020 show that 55.7 percent of Arab families in Israel are deemed poor, compared with 39.7 percent of Jewish families.
In addition, a 2016 NII survey found that 42.4 percent of Arab families face food insecurity, compared with 13.5 percent of Jewish families. Among Arab children, the situation is even direr – 50.6 percent live in a state of food insecurity. But the five-year program doesn’t address the problem and provides no funding to solve it.
Another widespread problem in the Arab sector is eligibility for rental assistance. Of 180,000 Israelis who qualify, only 3 percent are residents of Arab towns and another 27.3 percent are from mixed Jewish-Arab cities. The difference can be attributed to criteria for aid that don’t take into account the special characteristics of Arab society. Research carried out by the Knesset in 2016 found that the rental market in Arab towns is small and that many eligible recipients for aid were living in non-Arab towns.
The program provides that the Construction and Housing Ministry will work to ensure that eligibility for rental assistance in the Arab community is made accessible. That will be done by raising awareness and opening centers accepting applications in locations to be served by the program, but it doesn’t change the criteria for aid.
“The State of Israel has criminally neglected its Arab citizens, especially in the area of rental assistance,” said Danny Gigi of the Public Housing Forum. “The sector with the highest poverty rate shouldn't have no public housing or even rental assistance.”
In addition, Arab society suffers from employment disparities. Data from the Employment Service showed that at the beginning of 2020, the rate was just 41.4 percent, compared with 52.9 percent for ultra-Orthodox Jews and 66.5 percent for the rest of the Jewish community.
The five-year program allocates 1.4 billion shekels in funds to change this. It will focus on Arabs between the age of 18 and 35. It will expand the activities of the Economy Ministry's Rayan Employment Centers in the Arab community and increase training programs in fields where the economy needs them most. But research conducted by the Myers JDC Brookdale Institute indicated that the Rayan centers weren’t achieving their targets and that their success rate in job placement was low.
“The Rayan centers don’t fulfill their role because they do not refer clients to quality professional training programs on a large scale,” said Huda Abu Abeid of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. “They are content repeatedly placing the unemployed in temporary and part-time jobs, without enhancing their skills and improving their earning capabilities. Staff turnover at the centers is high and the quality of service is low.“
The five-year program also doesn’t address the absence of Employment Service branches in Arab communities. The service plays a critical role in providing work, providing services to job-seekers and employers and in developing jobs. Experts say that opening branches in Arab communities would help those who have had trouble entering the workforce and remaining in it.
Trailing behind in academic success
Another 9.4 billion shekels is to be directed toward education, making it the single biggest budget item in the program. It will focus on reducing the disparity between Jews and Arabs in student success rates, raising the rate of Arab students who qualify for the bagrut (high school matriculation) exam and lowering the drop-out rate.
Some 1.9 billion shekels of the budget will be used to reduce spending gaps between students from high socioeconomic backgrounds and those from lower ones. The money will be used to expand the existing Education Ministry effort to give priority to schools whose students come from lower socioeconomic levels. In the last few years, it was implemented in elementary and junior high schools and provided substantial additional funding for schools in Arab communities. But the gaps between Jewish and Arab schools remain, and the extra money is designed to narrow them.
But, even if Arab students can be expected to benefit from the extra budget, because so many of them are at the lowest socioeconomic levels, the money isn’t being provided exclusively to the Arab community. “The differential budget is based on socioeconomic conditions without reference to ethnicity and there process is flawed with regard to Arab society,” said Dr. Sharaf Hassan, chairman of the Arab Monitoring Committee for Education. “They should have had an additional budget exclusively for Arab society to close the gaps that have existed for years.”
Another section of the education budget is earmarked for the construction of more than 1,000 classrooms and nursery schools in Arab communities and closing the infrastructure gap that exists in education. But the need for educational facilities appears to be even larger: In 2018, the Education Ministry admitted that there was a shortfall of more than 2,300 classrooms in Arab communities.
The infrastructure gap in Arab schools isn’t only about funding but about the difficulties that Arab local authorities face in land-use planning and public spaces. The five-year program speaks of “removing construction obstacles” without explaining how it is to be accomplished.
From the results from late 2019 on the PISA exams – standardized tests administered throughout the developed world – it's clear that the disparities in achievement between Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations have grown, even though the Education Ministry has been trying for years to reduce spending disparities. The ministry conceded about a year ago that one of the reasons for the achievement gap is the quality of Arab teachers and how they are trained.
The five-year program addresses this. It requires that admission standards at teacher-training schools be raised and that proficiency tests be given to new teachers in their areas of specialization.
The Arab education monitoring committee, whose members were invited to offer their views while the plan was being prepared, sought to add a clause in the budget that would enable older teachers to take early retirement and bring in younger staff in their place. “Teacher turnover in the Arab community is lower than average due for structural reasons,” said Hassan. “A budget for early retirement would solve the problem of quality of teachers. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the program about that.”
Obesity, diabetes, smoking and depression
650 million shekels of the budget for the new five-year plan is also allocated to reduce health disparities between the Arab community and the rest of the population. The gaps are obvious, first and foremost when it comes to health infrastructure, poor access to health services and their limited availability – on top of an absence of cultural adaptations to Arab society.
All of this, along with the socioeconomic characteristics of the Arab community, are reflected in data relating to illness and life expectancy in the community.
The average life expectancy for Arab women is 82 years, compared to 85 for Jewish women. For Arab men, average life expectancy is 77.5 years, compared to 81.5 for Jewish men. The disparity in life expectancy is a reflection of the inequality in the health of Israeli Arabs over the course of their lifetimes, including a higher rate of diabetes, smoking, obesity and depression.
Dr. Muhammad Khateb, who teaches at the Zefat Academic College and is a member of the steering committee that worked on the health section of the five-year plan, said the plan places an emphasis on five burning issues in Arab society: the high rate of diabetes, obesity and smoking as well as issues involving mental health, women’s health and early childhood health.
The health section of the five-year plan is based on a plan formulated by the Health Ministry in 2019, which includes recommendations to reduce inequalities in health. It includes monitoring and follow-up, expanding accessibility to health services using digital and physical means, allocating staff and bolstering emergency medical services. In addition, the plan includes a set of incentives to prompt the country's health maintenance organizations to increase accessibility to medical care through cultural sensitivites and to improve the service for Arab patients.
With regard to children, the health section of the five-year plan includes a multiyear program for younger age groups that addresses improving the services that the HMOs provide to children in their early years, as well as child development, pediatric and women’s health services. In addition, it was decided to increase the staff dealing with educating the Arab public on health and preventive health issues at wellbaby clinics, elsewhere in the community and at patients' homes.
Prof. Bashara Basharat, the chairman of the Society for Health Promotion in the Arab Community at the Israel Medical Association, said that the majority of illness and death in the Arab community is preventable and is a result of an unhealthy lifestyle. That's why it was important for the plan to promote health literacy and staff training to advance these goals in the community, Basharat said.