The cabinet voted on Sunday to extend by a year a multi-billion dollar program aimed at closing extensive gaps between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. The program, known as the 922 plan was set to expire in December, with over a third of its funds still unused.
“It must be understood that economic investment in Arab society contains enormous economic potential; in my opinion, it is a clear interest of the Israeli government,” said Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen after the vote.
The decision was widely praised by Arab politicians, but also sparked accusations that one Arab MK may have collaborated a little too closely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in order to secure the extension.
The plan, initiated in 2015, allocated NIS 10 billion ($2.96 billion) to reduce widespread inequalities between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel. The extension will add another NIS 1.7 billion ($500 million) to the plan through the end of 2021.
The decision is even more noteworthy given the severe budget crisis facing Israel due to the coronavirus and two costly national shutdowns.
The extension will allow Arab municipalities time to use the unspent money, remove some restrictions, and act as a stop-gap until the expected passing of a new five-year-plan — called, appropriately enough, 923 — set to be approved in 2022.
“The 922 plan acted to shrink the inequality and develop infrastructure in Arab society, but this mission is not yet over. As such…, we have advanced an additional budget for 2021 and we’ve removed operational obstacles,” said Yael Mabrouch, a senior official in the Social Equality Ministry.
While some of the unspent money was a result of it being allocated to long-term construction projects, spending was also hampered by bureaucracy.
“The budget, especially with regard to planning and building, imposed many conditions which municipalities could not really fulfill, and much of the money never made it to us,” said Arara Mayor Mudar Younes, who leads a union of Arab local municipalities.
In an effort to ensure that the remaining money is spent, the government’s decision designated an additional five cities as “strategic cities” on Sunday, meaning they will receive additional funding for planning and building. The same decision also removed some of the conditions for building.
Arab Israeli MKs largely hailed the move to extend the 922 funding and remove obstacles to its use by local municipalities.
“Removing obstacles to receiving the budgets constitute an essential step in reducing the gaps which hurt all Arab citizens. The path to equality is long, but we will not give up,” Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh said in a statement.
While MK Yousef Jabareen praised the decision to extend 922 by a year, he said that “billions of additional funding is needed” to create “true equality.”
Jabareen said 922 had not yet resulted in “essential change,” and called for the new plan to include “a serious expansion of Arab jurisdictions, the establishment of industrial parks, including hi-tech, and advancing Arab education.”
Activists said 922, widely seen as an unprecedented action by the Israeli government to support Arab infrastructure and economic development at the time of its approval, had been a great success, but much more work was still needed.
Ofer Dagan, co-executive director of the shared society NGO Sikkuy, which advocates for equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel, highlighted some of 922’s key achievements, including improving the integration of Arab women in the workforce, expanding public transportation in Arab villages, and increasing public trust and collaboration between Arab municipalities and the Israeli government.
“I don’t think that the manner in which Arab municipalities succeeded in reducing the rates of coronavirus infection, which required coordination with the government and the (IDF) Home Front Command, could have happened without this improved trust which had been acquired over the last few years,” Dagan said.
But he noted that the improvements could have been far greater if there had been fewer restrictions on actually receiving the money.
Joint List tensions
While the extension was widely praised, the move also causes some tensions within the mostly Arab Joint List party, with some noting that the vote came only days after MK Mansour Abbas, who has been a key Joint List advocate for 922 plan’s approval, helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoid a Knesset embarrassment.
Abbas ignited a firestorm of controversy within the bloc of mostly Arab parties last week after he helped Knesset speaker Yariv Levin nullify a vote which would have authorized a Knesset committee of inquiry into the submarine affair, which involves several of Netanyahu’s closest associates.
The Ra’am party chief also announced that the extension had been approved by himself on Friday, saying he had been informed by Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman.
Some Joint List members have accused Abbas of conducting backdoor deals with Netanyahu to ensure the plan’s passage.
MK Mtanes Shahadeh said that he “hoped that the news of Abbas’ coordination with the Likud is untrue.”
“My friend Mansour Abbas erred. The Likud is not our partner. So it was and so it will be,” Shehadeh wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Abbas, who heads the Ra’am party in Joint List is reportedly considered to be too friendly to the ruling coalition and to have his own channels of communication with Netanyahu’s Likud.
“There will always be political disagreements inside the Joint List, but we also need a uniform framework of cooperation. The approach that MK Abbas is taking can’t create such a framework,” MK Hiba Yazbek from the Balad faction told the Haaretz newspaper.
Abbas, for his part, said on Sunday that the sudden passage of the 922 extension was unrelated to his decision to agree to nullify the Knesset vote. He called rumors of backroom deals with the Likud “imprecise publications.”
“I conduct myself in a transparent, professional, efficient, and respectable manner with all governor actors, not in accordance with the ‘deals’ which some have tried to accuse me of,” Abbas said in a statement.
Last Monday night, Abbas had read out a series of recommendations to Netanyahu, who was sitting in the Knesset at the time, including passing an extension for 922. According to Abbas, the prime minister had already responded favorably at the time.
“I brought up our righteous demands before the prime minister during a Knesset session, and he agreed, even before the Knesset vote incident,” Abbas said.