Rivlin with Arab mayors, February 5, 2015.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
A group of about 30 mayors of Arab municipalities from across the nation met with President Reuven Rivlin last week. Representing towns and cities such as Sakhnin, Rahat, Shfaram, Kafr Kasim, Abu Ghosh and Tira, the mayors devoted most of the meeting to voicing complaints about discrimination.
Poverty, weak law enforcement, high levels of unemployment, failing infrastructure, a lack of public transportation and inadequate planning for housing that keeps up with natural population growth were just some of the problems raised by the mayors during the meeting.
The most glaring discrimination against Arab Israelis is, perhaps, the unequal allocation of resources and budgets.
Last March, during a visit to Sakhnin by top-level Treasury officials which was led by then-finance minister Yair Lapid and then-science minister Yaakov Peri, the dimensions of the inequalities were revealed.
The very fact that a finance minister had taken the time to visit a large Arab city with an entourage of elite Treasury officials was highly unusual. Amir Levi, head of the Treasury’s Budget Division, admitted at the time that the state systematically discriminated against Arab towns with regard to budget allocations for education, public transportation, employment initiatives and the planning of industrial parks.
For instance, an Arab pupil living in a town ranked the second poorest on a socioeconomic scale of 1 to 10 received 20 percent less on average in state and municipal funding compared to a Jewish pupil living in a town with a socioeconomic rank of 5. Just 2% to 3% of the “special employment regions” set up to help fight unemployment are situated in the jurisdiction of Arab municipalities, even though unemployment among Arabs is significantly higher than among Jews. In 2012 61% of Arab women and 23% of Arab men did not work, compared to 15% and 10%, respectively, among Jews.
And while it is true that collection of municipal taxes (arnona) from households is notoriously low in Arab towns in comparison to Jewish towns, even after adjusting for the socioeconomic level of the towns, there is another, more significant, factor contributing to low municipal budgets in Arab towns.
Within the borders of many Jewish towns, there are large industrial parks with businesses, factories and commercial entities that provide significant arnona tax revenues. The creation of these industrial parks is carefully planned at the national level. It is no coincidence that few if any are located within the jurisdiction of Arab towns. Similarly, stateowned companies of past and present, such as Bezeq and Israel Electric Company, which also generate large arnona tax revenues, are generally located in Jewish cities.
As a result, in Arab towns, 78% of arnona tax revenues are from households, compared to a nationwide average of 34%, according to a study by Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance and Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.
Undoubtedly, a large part of the discrimination against Arab towns is connected to the Palestinian national struggle.
Many Arab Israelis see themselves as Palestinians and do not hide their opposition to Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state. Arab political parties too often adopt a confrontational position, making cooperation with mainstream political parties difficult, if not impossible.
As a result, consecutive governments have had little incentive to undo years of injustice. Jewish politicians are unlikely to gain popularity by calling to fight discrimination against Arab Israelis, who are often portrayed as enemies of the Jewish state. The call by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union to ban Arab politician Haneen Zoabi from running in the national elections was probably motivated more by cheap populism and the potential electoral gains to be had from “taking votes from the Right” than by a principled position on the limits of free speech.
But closing the socioeconomic gaps between Arab and Jewish Israelis is a quintessentially Zionist interest. By failing to provide Arab citizens with an equal head start and adequate employment opportunities, our political leaders are squandering incalculable human potential. They are also preventing the integration of over 20% of the Israeli population, thus setting the stage for future conflicts.
Last week’s meeting between Rivlin and the group of Arab mayors should be a reminder now, during election season, that populist calls to ban Arab politicians should be replaced with constructive solutions for endemic discrimination against Arab Israelis.