Despite repeated promises by the centrist Blue and White party, the largest government in Israel’s history won’t be appointing a minister for minority affairs, possibly at the moment when the Arab community most needs one.
On May 14, just three days before Israel’s 35th government was sworn in, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party announced it would appoint a minister for minority affairs as one of the faction’s ministers allocated to it under the coalition agreement with Likud. And that minister would come from the Arabic-speaking communities of Israel, the party said.
Two months later, no such appointment has been made and the party is understood to have dropped the idea completely.
Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, the first Druze woman elected to the Knesset, left Blue and White when its leader Benny Gantz opted to partner Benjamin Netanyahu in the current coalition, and went into the opposition with Yesh Atid. Likud’s Ayoub Kara, also a Druze, served as minister of communications from 2017-19, but subsequently lost his Knesset seat.
Over one-fifth of Israel’s citizens aren’t Jewish, and government investment in non-Jewish communities has grown dramatically over the past decade as economic planners and politicians from left and right have tried to compensate for decades of neglect, and have come to view development and employment in the Arab population as vital for Israel’s economic prospects generally.
In 2007, the government established the Minorities Economic Development Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office, led by Arab Israeli economist Aiman Saif. That authority was moved during the last government from the PMO to the Ministry for Social Equality, an expanded version of the Pensioners Ministry established by the Pensioners Party in 2007.
The current minister for social equality is Blue and White MK Merav Cohen.
As late as April, Saif was a frontrunner (Hebrew link) for the minorities minister post, which would have combined the authority he once ran with other programs from other ministries and given the new ministry’s agenda the attention of a cabinet-level post.
Labor party leader Amir Peretz, now the economy minister, also suggested Prof. Alean Al-Krenawi from Ben-Gurion University for the post, while others recommended former Zionist Union MK Salah Saad.
Blue and White officials explained that the appointment was halted in April amid a growing public outcry over the enormous scale and expense of the new government as the coronavirus pandemic devastated the economy and sent almost a million Israelis to the unemployment lines.
In recent weeks, Arab Israeli lawmakers from the Joint List faction have begun a campaign of their own — not for a new ministry, but for what they are dubbing “plan 923.”
In a dramatic vote in December 2015, Cabinet Decision no. 922 (Hebrew link) established a five-year, 15-billion-shekel ($4.3 billion) development plan for Arab towns and villages.
The program focused on infrastructure, education and employment. Just in its first two years of operation, according to a report submitted to the government in 2018, the percentage of homes in Arab towns that were connected to modern sewer networks rose from some 40% to 85%. Many Arab towns are poorly planned and not zoned with infrastructure in mind, so the new sewer connections required an investment of some NIS 500 million ($144 million).
A NIS 200 million ($57 million) investment in expanding bus networks in Arab towns led to a 77% increase in the number of people using public transportation, and a 127% increase in the number of rides they were taking. The new bus lines, the construction of 36 new preschools, and a NIS 200 million ($57 million) investment in vocational assistance centers helped some 30,000 non-working residents in Arab towns, many of them women, find new jobs in 2016 and 2017.
Over NIS 700 million ($202 million) were spent by 2018 on upgrading dilapidated roads, and NIS 350 million ($101 million) were given in grants to municipalities with effective commercial development initiatives. Another NIS 175 million ($50 million) went to university scholarships, NIS 250 million ($72 million) to helping schools in Arab towns fund more teaching hours and NIS 260 million ($75 million) for extracurricular after-school educational activities.
As important as the funding itself, the plan also streamlined the grant procedures and brought local council leaders to the table as active participants in the funding decisions, a shift that helped focus the funding toward areas where Arab communities themselves felt it was needed most.
The program ends at the close of 2020, and Joint List lawmakers have called for a new program to continue the vital work. The outlines of a new plan have already been developed in the Ministry for Social Equality, former minister Gila Gamliel (now the environmental protection minister) said last month.
But the government has yet to commit to funding a new wave of investment in Arab towns and may be hard-pressed to do so in the face of a virus-induced budget crunch that has already sent the deficit soaring past NIS 50 billion ($14 billion) for the year.
“There are two economies in this country: one of the Jewish sector and one of the Arab sector, and that’s an enormous loss to both Arab society and the Israeli economy,” Saif once said at a training program for senior government officials.
At the new government’s swearing-in ceremony on May 17, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that “the new government was formed by the will of most Israeli citizens, and it will serve all the citizens of Israel: Jews and non-Jews.”
His adversary-turned-partner Gantz vowed at the ceremony that the new government would bring an end to “government for just half of the people.”
But in an era of drastic belt-tightening, and without a voice advocating for the issue at the cabinet table, one of the key programs seeking to bridge the gap between the Jewish and Arab economies appears set to fall by the wayside.