General strike headed off in Arab towns and cities
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General strike headed off in Arab towns and cities

Last-minute agreement between prime minister and Arab lawmakers provides a boost for crumbling local authorities

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with representatives of the Joint (Arab) List party to discuss enlarging the budgets for Arab towns in Israel, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 31, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with representatives of the Joint (Arab) List party to discuss enlarging the budgets for Arab towns in Israel, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 31, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Leading Arab lawmakers on Monday canceled a general strike planned for the start of the school year on Tuesday, after reaching a last-ditch agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to transfer funds to cash-strapped local authorities and schools.

According to the agreement, reached between Joint (Arab) List head MK Ayman Odeh, MKs Masud Ganaim, Jamal Zahalka, and Ahmad Tibi, and Netanyahu, NIS 900 million ($229.5 million) will be gradually handed throughout the coming years to Arab local authorities and Arab educational institutions suffering from massive budget shortfalls, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“I am the prime minister of all citizens of Israel, the aid program we approved today is a significant correction, and another step designed to integrate Israeli Arabs into Israeli society as equals,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, according to the statement.

The Arab Knesset members also insisted that the government take real steps toward closing the social and economic gaps that exist between the Jewish and Arab communities in Israel.

Of the NIS 900 million approved in the deal, NIS 200 million ($50.99 million) will be given directly to local Arab authorities over the next year. A further NIS 350 million ($89.24 million) will be transferred to exemplary local authorities over a period of five years and NIS 135 million (34.42 million) would be designated for non-formal education programs in Arab municipalities.

The Committee of Arab Mayors had earlier declared that it would call a strike starting Tuesday, September 1, the first day of the new school year, if the demands of the lawmakers were not met.

“The Arab local authorities are struggling to try to give their citizens basic services,” Odeh said in a statement before the meeting with Netanyahu. “The school year that is about to start is not auspicious for the Arab citizens because our education system is on the verge of collapse due to ongoing neglect and discrimination. I hope that the prime minister understands that it is of mutual interest for all the citizens of the country to invest in education and in infrastructure, and to reduce the gaps in society.”

A system of Roman Catholic-run schools — attended by 33,000 mostly Arab Muslims — may also not be able to open the school year over budget problems.

Traditionally, the schools have received 65 percent of their budgets from the state, with parents paying the remainder. But that figure was cut to 34% two years ago, doubling the amount parents had to come up with.

The office of President Reuven Rivlin said he and Education Minister Naftali Bennett met with church officials last week, and that the “president welcomed the important work of these schools.”

Bennett assured the delegates that their schools’ lack of resources would be reviewed, and solutions would be sought.

AFP contributed to this report.

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