Israel Looks to Address Funding Gaps for Arab Community With $3.9 Billion Plan

Arab lawmakers welcome 5-year plan in principal, but question whether it will actually be implemented.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Hadash and Joint List parties, speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.
Bloomberg

The largest ever government plan to advance the economic development of Israel’s Arab population will go to the cabinet for approval on Wednesday, but Israeli Arab leaders said they were skeptical the ambitious plan would be put into effect given the current atmosphere in the country.

The proposal calls for 15 billion shekels ($3.86 billion) in extra funding on top of anything now allocated to Arab communities in the state budget. The money is to be devoted to developing infrastructure, industry, education and healthcare. The details of the plan were ironed out over the last two weeks in discussions between treasury officials and MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint Arab List.

But Arab lawmakers and public figures have expressed doubts about the likelihood of the plan being implemented, especially given the current atmosphere in Israel. The cabinet was supposed to approve the plan on Sunday, but the vote was delayed amid opposition from Likud ministers, including from Culture Minister Miri Regev, who said the plan did not include mixed cities of Hafia, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramle and Lod. Sources said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt uncomfortable approving the measure before the meeting of the Likud Central Committee Tuesday.

“We will be wiser after the cabinet meeting. Meanwhile, we are talking about promises and maybe a decision, which in the end has to be implemented,” said Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghanaim, who is also head of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee. “If it is implemented, it will be a step in the right direction. Anyone who thinks this will lead to equality is wrong. It’s a step in the right direction on a long road,” he added.

The draft resolution details the gaps between Israeli Jews and Arabs. While Arabs constitute about 20% of Israel’s population, only 7% of the government’s budget for public transportation goes to Arab communities. Moreover, some 34% of those killed in traffic accidents are Arab.

In the coming year, 100 million shekels will be invested in roads crossing Arab communities, an investment that the plan says “is expected to improve the quality of traffic flow and increase the level of safety for the residents.”

Noting that many Arab communities have no public transportation at all, the plan calls for 40% of all additional spending on public transportation, or 100 million shekels a year, whichever is highest, to be earmarked for Arab communities, until parity is achieved with Jewish communities. The plan calls for complete equality in transportation, in terms of frequency of service and area covered by public transportation, by 2022.

Only 3.5% of industrial zones in Israel are in Arab communities.

According to figures for 2014, 75.4% of Arab men between the ages of 25 and 64 were employed, compared with 85.7% of Jewish men who are not Haredi. Only 33.2% of adult Arab women were employed, versus 79.9% Jewish women. The plan calls for spending 24 million shekels on incentives to employers and small and medium-size businesses in the Arab community, as well as a 25% increase in the budget for building daycare centers in Arab towns. The Finance Ministry will allocate 200 million shekels to the Economy Ministry for employment-counselling centers in Arab communities.

In education, 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 plan calls for a program led by the Education Ministry to improve Arabic and Hebrew language skills, with an emphasis on speaking and writing, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

By 2021, the plan calls for Arab undergraduates at Israeli universities to reach 17%, which would be an increase from 14% last year, and a similar boost for post-graduate students.

In housing, the plan states that 20 percent of the investment in public institutions will be in Arab communities, and that 30 percent of the fund for protection of open spaces is to be earmarked for Arab communities.

A steering committee is to be established to push forward dense construction in neighborhoods in Arab communities. Over the plan’s five years, the investment in this construction will be no less than 750 million shekels, which is the same investment as for the general population.

The plan also requires the Planning and Building Council in the Interior Ministry to complete updated master plans for Arab communities where the population will exceed 5,000 residents during the five years of the plan. During this period, detailed planning of no less than 40,000 new housing units will be completed.

Development grants to Arab municipalities are to increase considerably, according to the plan. To this end, the Finance Ministry will allocate 200 million shekels a year in 2016, and 150 million shekels for each of the following four years. A one-time grant is to be given next year as an addition to the budget of Arab municipalities.

The plan also covers health, public security, culture and tourism, albeit to a lesser extent. However, the plan calls for an increased police presence in Arab communities and an expansion of the Public Security Ministry’s antiviolence programs. More than 50 million shekels will be invested in improving the disaster readiness of Arab municipalities.

The Health Ministry is to push forward a plan to unite the hospitals in Nazareth; the Tourism Ministry will promote Nazareth as a destination; and the Culture and Sports Ministry will examine its funding support of Arab cultural institutions.

In each area, the relevant minister will be responsible for implementation and the director general in each ministry will be required to appoint a senior professional to coordinate the work at the specific ministry.

A few months ago, the heads of the Arab municipalities within Israel and MKs from the Joint Arab List formulated a different plan, which the Finance Ministry rejected.

The plan, if approved, is to be administered by the Social Affairs Ministry, through the government’s Authority for the Economic Development of Minority Sectors. The plan requires the authority to report to a ministerial committee at least once every six months.