“I came from the world of business and management, and fitting into the political and public world wasn’t difficult or complicated,” said Avi Gabbay in his resignation speech as Israel’s environmental protection minister.
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Gabbay’s speech last Friday made waves, particularly when he discussed the connection between the plan for Israel’s natural gas reserves, the resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (a week before Gabbay’s resignation) and the attack by politicians on the army brass as part of a plan to “weaken the public service lest it speak its mind.” The upshot, Gabbay declared, is that the public service is craven.
Less entertainingly, Gabbay had important messages about the government’s weak management. That weakness was jarringly exposed two weeks ago in an official tour to the village of Jisr al-Zarqa (pronounce JEE-sar al-ZARka), one of Gabbay’s last official as minister.
The tour of the Israeli-Arab coastal town revealed the government’s feebleness from two aspects.
The first and foremost one is its inability to solve problems, even when it knows about them. Jisr al-Zarqa is one of the poorest towns in Israel. Together with various Bedouin villages in the Negev, it occupies the lowest socioeconomic rank in the Central Bureau of Statistics’ records. Israelis generally don’t know much about the poverty in the Bedouin towns, but they know the Arab town of Jisr al-Zarqa because it lies just off Route 2. And every week, hundreds of thousands of Israelis pass by it, seeing the piles of garbage and lousy infrastructure as they speed on to Haifa or Tel Aviv.
Jisr al-Zarqa’s location is what makes its failure so stunning. It’s an Arab town located in central Israel. It’s also one of the few Arab towns in central Israel that wasn’t destroyed during the War of Independence. To its north is Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, Caesarea lies to its south, and the green fields of Moshav Beit Hanania lie to the east. It is surrounded by employment options and, primarily, has a magnificent natural resource: Uniquely among Israeli Arab towns, it survived on the Mediterranean coast, has gorgeous views and also features the country’s last active fishing village.
Some romantically call it “Israel’s Sinai,” referring to the southern desert coast that was once beloved of Israelis seeking a sea break. But Jisr al-Zarqa has never been any such thing. The main impression left on anyone daring to visit was how much filth had accumulated on the beach.
Until, that is, the Environmental Protection Ministry and Israel Nature and Parks Authority embarked on a joint mission to clean up the Jisr al-Zarqa beach ahead of Gabbay’s visit. Now it really does look like a mini-Sinai, complete with a pastoral view of the fishing harbor. And all this just 40 minutes from Tel Aviv (and five from Caesarea).
Without doubt, Jisr al-Zarqa’s tourism potential is huge – which makes the town’s shocking statistics all the harder to read. It has an accrued deficit of 68 million shekels ($17.7 million). The town basically neglects to charge businesses any local tax (its rate is a mere 4%), while income from household municipality taxes is minuscule, too. Its rate of city tax collection is a measly 52% – and that’s up from its historic low of 17%.
In addition, it collects only 27% of its water bills. That explains why the nearest water utility refuses to hook up the village and why the town’s water infrastructure is so rickety, with a leak rate of about 40%. If the law didn’t forbid cutting off the water supply due to debt, Jisr al-Zarqa would have the highest rate of water cuts in Israel.
The town’s population is 14,000, with almost half of them minors; Jisr al-Zarqa also boasts one of the highest growth rates in Israel. Yet it’s choked on all sides, unable to expand, and is shunned by Arab society so has an enormously high rate of kinfolk marrying kinfolk.
There are two versions of the shunning story.
One is that the villagers helped the Jews protecting Zichron Yaakov during the War of Independence, and have since been shunned. The other is that the village was founded in the 19th century by Sudanese Arabs, the offspring of slaves, so it never owned any land of its own and was, therefore, looked down on by the Palestinian workers.
In any case, the result of the inbreeding is a very high rate of birth defects. So on top of the village’s other troubles, the residents with problems also need care, so the village has a special education school.
Schools are a sore point at Jisr al-Zarqa – it has eight of them and could use more, but can’t open any because there’s no land. Also, the existing ones are, in a word, terrible. Only 10% of pupils managed to pass the nationwide Meitzav exams for elementary schools, and only 26% of high school students are even eligible to take matriculation exams. Those are probably the lowest figures in Israel.
They may help explain why unemployment among the town’s young is so high – local council leader Morad Fathi estimates it at 25% (compared with less than 5% for the general Israeli population), although he admits that at least some of that figure is due to young people working off-the-books.
The town’s situation challenges the government’s management capabilities. Jisr al-Zarqa should be a stunning success story, yet it’s one of the worst failures in the land in terms of local government. It’s a cheap shot to blame the local residents. They may bear the brunt of the blame for the violence, low debt payment rates and lousy education – but it is the nature of weak population groups not to know how to help themselves. If the poor knew how to stop being poor, there wouldn’t be poor people any more.
Jisr al-Zarqa is a poor town because its people don’t know how to stop being poor. It is up to the state to extend a hand and help them help themselves. But for decades, the state has been perfectly aware of the state of things there, and has not held out a hand.
Scarcity of ministers
During Gabbay’s recent visit, Yusef Mishleb – the district manager for the Interior Ministry – described how attempts to promote help for Jisr al-Zarqa failed over the years. The Haifa district prepared a detailed assistance plan three years ago, since when it has been mainly collecting dust in the drawers of serial interior ministers, not one of whom bothered doing anything about it.
The fact that the district manager of the Interior Ministry contacted the environmental protection minister of all people, to assist him in promoting a plan to help Jisr al-Zarqa in government circles, demonstrates the second managerial failure of the Israeli government: the fact that there is no management.
Jisr al-Zarqa does have problems with garbage and filth. So do most Arab towns in Israel. No question, it needs the help of the INPA to develop the beach, merging it effectively with the Nahal Taninim National Park.
But environment is the last of Jisr al-Zarqa’s problems. Long before Gabbay arrived, the ministers of the interior, finance, tourism or education should have visited Jisr al-Zarqa, a town that’s among the poorest in the land but whose rehabilitation potential is one of the greatest.
They did not come. Only Gabbay. Why? Because Gabbay cares and they don’t. The absurd result is that the one minister whose fief isn’t really relevant to the problems with which Jisr al-Zarqa is contending is the one who tried to make the government relate to the town, which should have been at the top of various ministerial agendas for years.
The randomness of government management – even when the problems scream to the heavens like those of Jisr al-Zarqa – is the main thing that stood out during Gabbay’s tour two weeks ago. The various ministries do not have methodical management work, or risk management, or a structured set of priorities. So, any passing minister can pick and choose what to deal with as he pleases.
Gabbay felt like helping the Arab population and became exposed to the problems of Jisr al-Zarqa. By the same happenstance, the ministers who should be vigorously promoting the town’s advance don’t take an interest in it, and so don’t help.
“In contrast to the conventional wisdom,” Gabbay said in his parting speech, “I found a lot of people at the ministries who are working for the public good inside the rigid, bureaucratic system, which makes it difficult for them to fulfill their roles. As a result, the public suffers.”
The people of Jisr al-Zarqa can tell you all about that.