Aiman Saif has a dream. He envisions a day in the not-so-distant future when the needs of Israel’s Arab minority are fully reflected in the government budget, signifying that they are considered as much a part of the Israeli population as the Jewish majority.
“I hope each ministry will treat Arab society as equal citizens and provide all the resources they need to achieve a better standard of living,” he says. “It should happen naturally, without a government resolution to state what needs to be done.”
Saif’s proposition is not improbable, given the extraordinary changes that have occurred in the government’s approach to the Arab minority over the past decade.
During that period Saif has headed a high-level government unit overseeing the implementation of a series of groundbreaking resolutions, plans and budget allocations – investments by the Israeli government in its Arab citizens and their communities.
“Ten years ago, the issue of economic integration of Arab society was not a government priority, and today it is a top priority for government ministries,” said Saif, director of the Authority for the Economic Development of Minorities.
“We succeeded in putting the issue of economic development and integration of the Arab minority on the Israel agenda,” Saif told me.
When the Authority was established in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2008, Saif was named its first director. He came to the position determined to be forward-looking and refusing to let himself get mired in the endless debate over who is responsible for the longstanding inequities between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. Interacting with all the government ministries, Arab municipal leaders and civil society, the Authority’s staff of 15 has sought and found solutions that promise a long-lasting impact.
The government has adopted more than a dozen plans, all managed by the Authority, that provide more than NIS 16.5 billion for investments, primarily in education, transportation, housing and employment in the Arab sector.
The most significant of them is spelled out in Government Resolution 922, a five-year plan totaling NIS 10b. that began in 2015 and will continue through 2020.
Implementing 922 is the current focus of the Authority.
It dramatically changes the mechanism of budget allocations so that the Arab minority will get at least 20% of all budgeted funds. “This is a major change we wanted. The Arab minority will get resources,” said Saif.
From the beginning, Saif has ensured that transportation is a top government priority. Bus service is critical for access to employment, higher education and enhancing the economic conditions of Israeli Arabs, and it was severely lacking before the Authority came on the scene.
Today, more than 75% of Arab villages and towns have public transportation. Still, more investment is needed to increase the number of buses and the quality of service. In Saif’s village of Ar’ara in the Wadi Ara area of the Galilee, for example, “one bus goes around the village and leaves for Hadera at 7 a.m. The next bus is at 7:30 a.m. and then nothing afterwards,” said Saif.
Reallocating resources can help. Before 922, Israel’s Arab community received only 7% of the Transportation Ministry budget. Now, with implementation of the plan, it is increasing, and after 2020 will be at least 20% of the ministry’s annual budget.
Several government plans are boosting Arab access to higher education and increasing Arab employment rates.
Last year the number of Arab students entering colleges and universities in Israel was 17% of all first-year students, an increase from 10% in 2011.
Helping Arab entrepreneurs get involved in the booming hi-tech sector has been a special interest of the Authority, which has provided grants of NIS 2 million to Arab entrepreneurs.
In 2017 alone, over 31 Arab citizens received NIS 52m. These grants comprise 85% of an entrepreneur’s total investment, giving them an edge in securing additional funding from venture capitalists or foundations, he said.
Closing the gaps between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens requires a partnership. While the government has been very forthcoming, Saif explains that within Arab communities, “mayors, municipalities, indeed a majority are talking about economic development, while before the Authority no one was talking about this.” Arab interest in the various projects underway will continue to grow as they see direct benefits for their families, villages, and towns.
It’s an ongoing process, and not every piece of the various multi-year plans runs as smoothly as transportation.
Proposals have been developed for 70 Arab villages and towns to address the housing shortages, but construction companies have not yet been motivated to invest, and new homes completed have been difficult to market due to their prices and the resistance of potential buyers to move to apartments from their traditional houses. Last year, for example, 6,000 apartments were marketed, but only 3,000 sold.
But as in regard to other components of the Authority’s vast mandate, Saif speaks confidently that with time, this too will yield satisfactory results.
“My dream is that investments in Arab society will be part of each ministry budget, of the national budget, suitable resources provided to give right solutions to the needs of Arab society,” said Saif. “I am optimistic, but it will take time.”
As we spoke, Saif was preparing to leave his position after a decade of path-breaking service. I asked him what the number one achievement of the Authority has been to date. Without hesitation, Saif declared that “the biggest accomplishment of the Authority was its creation by the government.”The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.