The government will do its part to provide infrastructure to help integrate Israel’s Arab citizens into the workforce, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, but specified that the community must do its fair share.

“We’ll invest in the national infrastructure. I want you to invest in your personal infrastructure,” he said at the third annual Prime Minister’s Conference on economic issues at Tel Aviv University, this year focusing on Arab integration.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks yesterday in Tel Aviv at the conference on economic issues. Photo: Avi Ohayon/GPO

“When we say an equal society, it’s both in terms of obligations and rights,” he said.

While it is incumbent on the government to provide roads, education and safety, Netanyahu said, it is important to inspire a sense of entrepreneurship and possibility within the Arab community. To that end, he announced that at next year’s conference, he would meet with promising female Arab entrepreneurs and business students.

His focus on Arab women was not coincidental; despite overall good economic conditions in Israel, the low participation of Arab women (and haredi men) in the labor force represents a long-term danger for the economy.

Whereas nearly 70 percent of the general population participates in the labor force, only 29% of Arab women do. Fiftyseven percent of Arabs live below the poverty line, and while they represent only 20.4% of the population today, Arabs and haredi Jews already account for more than half of the country’s first-graders.

Given demographic trends, if these populations are not brought into the workforce, Israel can expect to lose 1.3% of annual economic growth, head toward unsustainable debt levels, and build social unrest as economic inequality rises to the highest level in the developed world.

Throughout the meeting, ministers and economic leaders representing the breadth of the government gave their perspectives and touted their plans for fixing the obstacles of integrating Israeli Arabs into the economy.

“We want to break the glass wall,” Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett declared, calling on Israeli businesses to set prejudice aside in their hiring practices.

Though wary of affirmative action programs, the free-market- oriented Bennett said he had come to the conclusion that the government had a role to play in bridging gaps among the sectors.

“Don’t give up on us as a state, and we won’t give up on you,” he promised.

In a discussion on the business sector’s responsibilities for diversifying its workforce, leaders from Intel, Super Pharm, Teva and Strauss, among other companies, were adamant that incorporating Arabs and other minorities into their workforces increased their overall productivity.

Economy and Trade Ministry Deputy Director Michal Tzuk noted that the government could help by ensuring that its own supply chain included small and medium businesses from the Arab sector. Given its buying power, the government could help Arabs establish themselves in the markets.

In her first public speech since being nominated Bank of Israel governor, Karnit Flug said that Israel must deal with the problem of discrimination or suffer the economic and social consequences.

In addition to increasing education and training, Flug said, “the incidence of discrimination must also not be ignored, and we know that the Arab public has difficulty integrating into certain industries, even if the appropriate training is provided.”

She called out the hi-tech sector in particular, where she said that even well-trained Israeli Arabs had trouble successfully integrating.

“The Arab population in Israel contains immense untapped potential from the standpoint of the Israeli economy’s growth capability,” she continued. “Integrating the Arab public into the labor market in particular, and into the economy in general, is a very important, even essential, component of the Israeli economy’s ability to continue to grow, and to support a higher standard of living for all Israelis.”

During a panel on the future of education and higher learning, Education Minister Shai Piron said that the Israeli system “has not properly handled education for the Arab sector.”

“The gaps between the sectors are a moral stain on Israeli society,” he stated. “We can and need to fix it.”

Piron also formulated his main objectives in strengthening education in the Arab sector, which include employing “the best people in the sector” to lead the Arab learning system; adapting the curriculum to the 21st century; and creating frameworks to accompany pupils outside of school.

“It’s not just the question of what happens from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but from 2 p.m. on,” the minister said, promising to do “whatever it takes” to provide Arabs with a quality education.

Touching on a recurring theme of the conference, the chairman of the Council for Higher Education’s budgeting and planning committee, Manuel Trajtenberg, said that geographic separation was an impediment for improving Arab attendance in institutions of higher learning.

Trajtenberg also had a message for Diaspora Jews who donated to causes in the Jewish state: “If a Jew abroad wants to help the State of Israel, he must help the entire State of Israel, not just the majority.”

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger