(photo credit: REUTERS)
The new economic program for reducing gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens recently authorized by the cabinet is undoubtedly a positive step in the direction of reducing the ongoing discrimination and inequality toward us, the Arabs in Israel.
The program, which was prepared over the past year in the Finance Ministry and the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector, is a first attempt in Israel’s history to promote a serious plan for treating the root problems of economic discrimination against the Arab sector – discrimination that harms the Arabs first and foremost, but not only them.
The economic leadership is well aware of the importance of integrating Arabs into the job market. For example, the fact that 68 percent of Arab women are excluded from the workplace has a damaging effect not only on Arab society but on the entire economy.
Every fifth Israeli citizen is an Arab, and when about half of Arab families are living below the poverty line or are unemployed, the entire economy is stuck – and not only Arab society.
To fix this situation, Finance Ministry budget director Amir Levy and the head of the Arab economic development authority Aiman Saif have worked to build a program that would make an unprecedented effort to deal with the roots of the “disease” and not only its symptoms.
The program, which passed after a heated debate in the cabinet, attempts for the first time to repair the institutionalized discrimination against Arabs by dealing with the budget allocation system as a whole and not only by “extinguishing fires” in specific cases, in the guise of one-off budgets. Instead of a specific budgetary supplement to solve a specific problem, the program attempts to repair the system that has created the gaps throughout the years and has led to inferior education, employment, industrial and transportation infrastructure in Arab communities. The equal allocation is meant to be permanent, to reduce gaps and to benefit Arab citizens and the economy as a whole.
The program includes a change in about 15 allocation and budgeting mechanisms in various spheres, including public transportation, infrastructure, informal education, development of industrial and employment zones and more, in order to ensure that Arab citizens will be funded based on their percentage of the population.
Changing these mechanisms would transfer about eight billion shekels to the Arab public in the next five years, in addition to the specific grants.
However, the program does not do enough to address discrimination in the education budget, nor does it channel sufficient resources to the local Arab municipalities. As opposed to what is generally believed, the claim that the budgetary distress of the Arab authorities stems from the failure to pay residential arnona (municipal property tax) is false. According to a study we conducted, the differences in income from arnona from commerce, employment and industry, government ministries and infrastructure installations are the main reason for the economic difficulties of many Arab local governments.
In order to complete the process of reducing the gaps, the government must handle this serious problem in future by duplicating the method of changing mechanisms, so that they will be equal for everyone.
Unfortunately, we discovered that the attempt to achieve equality in civil rights is encountering opposition and difficulties even though it is being supported and advanced by the most senior professionals in the government.
Although the plan is appropriate and just, some of the ministers opposed it due to narrow populist motives.
The government should be commended on its decision to approve these significant changes which will benefit Arab community as well as the economy as a whole – a win-win situation. Any other decision would have been a rejection of public responsibility and of the obligation to ensure equality and to reduce the disparities between Jews and Arabs in Israel.The author is co-director of the Equality Policy Department at Sikkuy-The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.