Benjamin Netanyahu continues to attract headlines at home and overseas for anti-democratic instincts. This month, he was pictured on the Eilat-Jordan border threatening to surround Israel with a security barrier to keep out the ‘wild beasts’. And his bill to constrain the activities of ‘unfriendly’ non-governmental organisations had its first reading.
The prime minister imposed a ban on the northern faction of the radical Islamic Movement inside Israel because of suspected jihadist sympathies, and a voting ban has been imposed on three Arab MKs who visited families of three ‘terrorists’ allegedly responsible for killing three Israeli citizens in bus attacks last October.
In contrast to his tendency towards inflammatory language and gestures, Netanyahu’s government seems more ready than most of its predecessors to correct a 67-year-old injustice in the unequal treatment of the country’s 1.8m Israeli-Arab citizens.
It has long seemed obvious that the under-funding of schools in Arab towns and villages, restrictions on land for housing poor infrastructure and the lack of opportunities for Arabs in Israel’s workforce has been a socio-economic time bomb that threatens internal cohesion.
Pilot work of a number of Israeli NGOs is increasingly being embraced by the Israeli government with increased funding and imaginative appointments to senior jobs in the Netanyahu administration. Impetus for change is internal and external. With so much turmoil and violence among its neighbours, as the Arab spring has become the Arab nightmare, the case for embracing Israeli-Arabs and making them more comfortable with their Israeli citizenship is overwhelming.
Among those pursuing this agenda is President Reuven Rivlin, who backs additional funding to Arab communities. Last month, he said: “I am concerned that the more the state avoids taking responsibility (for its Arab citizens)… the faster the jihadi Salafists will rush in to fill the vacuum.”
His call has not fallen on deaf ears. Israel’s government has upped the budget to be spent on the advancement of Israeli-Arab citizens from NIS 10bn to 15bn over the next five years. And despite his use of unhelpful language, Netanyahu is supportive.
The prime minister is under strong pressure to fulfil Jerusalem’s obligations to the Paris-based OECD. It is critical of the wide gap in Israel between the haves and have-nots, which is among the worst among advanced industrial nations. Figures are distorted by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few oligarchical dynasties and the relative poverty of Israeli-Arabs and Charedi minorities.
The tangible impact of this drive for more equality can be seen in a number of areas. A government approved housing report advocates reforms making it easier to release land to Arabs in their own areas. Government has, for instance, embraced ‘one-stop employment centres’ with the allocation of NIS 200m in programmes run by JDC-Tevet.
One of its leaders, Safa Garb, is determined to turn around a situation in which Arabs represent 20 percent of the population but create just eight percent of national output. It has established centres all over the country aimed at providing Arab women with skills to bring them into the workforce. In education, a project aims to give Arabs better Hebrew skills to help them work in Israeli-Jewish businesses.
Among the tangible evidence of Israel’s new efforts to address the exclusion of Arabs from the civil service and business is the work of two government officials. Director-general of the Ministry of Justice Emi Palmor, daughter of a Shoah-survivor, has raised the department’s number of Arab employees to 9.3 percent, has an Arab personal assistant and produces an annual report outlining the numbers of Arabs employed and sharing the progress made in integrating the department.
Commitment of the government to Israeli-Arab employment has been reinforced by the government’s appointment of Mariam Kabaha as the first Israeli-Arab head of the Equal Opportunities Commission. The choice is symbolic of Jerusalem’s determination to end the racism that has excluded many Arab-Israeli’s from the workforce.
Much of the pressure for change in the status, education, housing and employment prospects has been bottom up with initiatives coming from NGOs funded by outside charitable contributions.
What is really encouraging is the willingness of the Israeli authorities to shed ancient prejudices and scale up the projects.