The Bottom Line / Billions in Burst Balloons

In July 2000, the annual Caesarea Conference was held in Nazareth. Arab public figures attended and one session was dedicated to the issue of discrimination against Arabs. Election fever was already in the air, and Labor ministers Yuli Tamir and Matan Vilnai declared from the dias that then prime minister Ehud Barak himself was formulating a wide-ranging, NIS 4 billion program for development of the Arab community. All the honored guests responded with wild applause.

The program was approved by the cabinet, but that was five years ago. Have you seen even one of those four billion shekels? Neither have the Arabs.

Since then budgets for the Arab sector have actually been cut, not increased.

And so when Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert proudly trotted out their seven-year, NIS 14 billion, anti-poverty program, I said to myself: "Been here. Done that." We're back to the multi-year plans, and if we can't even remember a four-year plan, then how are supposed to keep track of a seven-year one? The state budget is approved every year, and who knows what will happen tomorrow, what economic crisis we'll have and when a deep budget cut will be needed?

Some people even naively believe that in 2006 the government will spend NIS 2 billion on its war of poverty (14 billion divided by seven). Are you kidding? Only NIS 500 million has been budgeted for next year. We'll talk later. After all, there are priorities.

Even the half a billion is not "new" money, but rather a "pooling of resources" and "finding sources." The former means giving old budgets new names, for the same purposes as before, while the latter means cutting ministry budgets to avoid exceeding the deficit limits.

Everyone talks about cutting the defense budget, of course. It's so popular. But soon the warnings about Iranian missiles aimed at central Tel Aviv and about the renewal of terror will return, and the cuts will be made only to welfare budgets, as usual. One hand will cut the health, education and welfare budgets while the other hand will add funding "to fight poverty." The "Isra-bluff" method always works.

The funny (and sad) thing about the plan is the Arab part of it. This is a significant item costing a few billion shekels (the ones that have been waiting since Barak) to build industrial centers in Arab communities, classrooms, etcetera.

This is supposed to make up for some of the discrimination. Does anyone know that there is no industrial area in any Arab community in Israel? Does anyone know that since the Declaration of Independence, 700 new communities have been established but not a single Arab one with the exception of a few towns for Bedouin in the Negev to make them give up their extensive grazing lands?

The treatment by successive Israeli governments of the country's Arab citizens has been characterized by "neglect and discrimination," according to the Or Commission, which was tasked with assessing the events leading up to the riots in October 2000. It also determined: "A primary target of state activity must be achieving true equality for the Arab citizens," and, "The state must swiftly and with determination enact a clear plan for closing the gaps."

So now, as part of the implementation of the Or Commission's recommendations, and as part of the festive plan to end poverty, Israel's Arabs are about to be awash in billions of shekels - just like the billions they got when Barak was prime minister.