Why Israel Will and Must Help Its Arab Citizens Catch Up

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Hundreds of Israeli Christians hold banners in a rally against what they said was state discrimination in funding their schools at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth on September 1, 2015.
Hundreds of Israeli Christians hold banners in a rally against what they said was state discrimination in funding their schools at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.Credit: AFP

Less than a week after the cabinet’s decision to embark on a dramatic change that would channel government resources to the Arab public, commentators were already declaring the reform dead. A new panel headed by cabinet ministers Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin, they said, would propose the criteria for the implementation of the plan and would in essence kill it.

That take on the situation gained a lot of adherents. Politicians on the right don’t want to be seen, heaven forbid, as doing anything that would benefit the Arabs — certainly not during a period of terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, those on the left are not prepared to say that a bad government has done the right thing. And so it was easy for everyone across the spectrum to agree on one thing: There would be no reform.

But Elkin and Levin’s committee has not been set up and, at the moment, the only clause of the (original) reform that require's the committee's approval is the housing provision — which constitutes just 10 percent of the total package. Granted, that’s not good, but that’s a far cry from the death of the reform. I'm willing to bet that contrary to the media's predictions, the reform will in fact not fizzle out — not only because it is the right thing to do, but because there is more behind it than just good intentions.

The initiative had its origins in the Finance Ministry's budget division. It is based on detached professional calculations which, according to those who developed it, transcend politics. The staff of the budget division believe that poverty and unemployment among Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews are impediments to economic growth, which pose the greatest threat to the country. In order to address this problem in the Arab community, it is not enough to admonish Arab women to go out and work. In the long run, the issue depends on the quality of education and infrastructure. There are substantial economic reasons behind the reform. And there is the factor of the budget division's clout. One wise longtime commentator once told me that the staff of the budget division perceive themselves as the country’s Praetorian Guard, a bastion protecting the treasury from politicians’ incompetence, populism and shortsightedness. And like in ancient Rome, the emperor who relied on the Praetorian Guard to guarantee his safety became dependent upon their graces. Without overstating the comparison — since the budget division will apparently not start murdering prime ministers — the division is nonetheless a powerful entity, some would even say too powerful.

The details of the reform were prepared by the professional staffs of the government ministries, each ministry working on the field within its jurisdiction, after which their work was sent to the budget division of the treasury. The housing provisions, however, were not prepared by the Construction Ministry, but by the budget division itself. As a result, the budget division attaches special importance to the housing provisions and also stands behind the details. One can therefore guess that even the housing proposal, despite being subject to committee approval, is in less danger than it might appear.

All of this, however, has been obscured by a cloud of bombastic rhetoric. Both the nationalistic government and the wings of the opposition that frequently rail against it for “fascism” or “apartheid” are politically and emotionally preoccupied with depicting relations between Jews and Arabs as a zero-sum game. What’s good for the Zionist state is bad for the Arabs and vice versa. In reality, however, life together means mutual dependence, and sometimes what’s good for one sector of the population depends on what’s good for another.

If we had to rely on a love of justice alone, then the current right-wing government, the most right-wing of governments in Israel’s history, would most likely not have been the one to try to rectify the years of injustice toward the Arab population. In this instance, however, the right thing to do also converged with what would benefit both populations. True, the victory of justice over expedience and of the weak over the strong may sound more romantic, but when expedience supports justice and the strong back the weak, it’s more effective. So while the bombast may continue, there is apparently no stopping the reform.

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