Joint List leader fights with PM's top aide at Arab economics confab

MK Odeh welcomed the increased public expenditure, but added that the plan failed to address many of the other issues that Israeli Arabs face.

HADASH MK Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List, speaks at the Knesset in this file photo. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HADASH MK Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List, speaks at the Knesset in this file photo.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The head of the Arab opposition Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh, slammed the government at a conference in Nazareth on Wednesday for failing to work with Israeli Arabs on economic development. The prime minister’s director-general spoke right afterward and was heckled by the lawmaker.
“Partnership is the key to the success of Arab society,” Odeh said at TheMarker’s Arab economic conference, held at the Golden Crown Mt. Precipice hotel in Nazareth.
“Yet this is the first time that representatives of the Finance Ministry have cooperated with representatives of Arab society in order to embark on an economic program that will benefit Arab society.... Without the involvement of Arab society, the government basically says that it has something to hide, or that the society is not ready for it.”
The director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner, directly followed Odeh, dismissing the criticism and asking the audience to “follow the money.”
“The message is clear – the Israeli government sees Arab society as an engine of growth,” said Groner. “We are in short supply of manpower, and we will grow the economy through people who are not at the core of the nation’s startups.... We are succeeding in narrowing [socioeconomic] gaps, and there is no one who benefits more than Arab society – but this is a long and difficult process.”
Groner added that the government’s five-year “922 plan” – which allocates approximately NIS 13.5 billion to Arab municipalities to improve public transit and infrastructure, in an attempt to help reduce massive budget gaps between Arab and Jewish towns – would turn an Arab neighborhood of Nazareth into something resembling a Jewish neighborhood of Modi’in.
While Odeh welcomed the increased public expenditure, he added that the plan failed to address issues such as legalizing Arab homes that were built without a permit, disparities in the criminal justice system and unilateral social welfare programs.
“The State of Israel since 1948 has built 700 new towns for Jews. And [new] Arab towns? Zero. This isn’t just politics, this is discrimination, this is racism. The lack of policy leads to illegal construction and building violations, Odeh shouted, in a hoarse voice.
Groner acknowledged Odeh’s observation, then pivoted. “I am talking about the construction that is taking place.... In the past people built illegally, and it was impossible to enforce it.” Odeh then shouted at Groner, interrupting his remarks, while Groner added that he had remained silent during the previous speech.
In a sideline interview with The Jerusalem Post after the speech, Groner tried to clarify the government’s agenda vis-a-vis Arab citizens.
“Historically, the lack of law and order around illegal housing and illegal building in the Arab community has hurt the Arab community more than any other community,” Groner said. “I told Ayman Odeh at this conference right now, he should be the person most celebrating the prime minister’s forceful, historic legislation, which changes enforcement of the building code from a legal process to a civilian process. That’s a historic change, it’s going to change everything having to do with law and order in terms of illegal building in the Arab sector, and the people that have to be happiest about that themselves are Arab citizens.”
But Odeh was undeterred. “I submitted a proposal to the Prime Minister’s Office, I said two years ago that we will promote outline plans to expand the jurisdictions,” he said in his speech, referring to the relatively compact size of Arab municipalities. While the number of people living in mostly Arab Nazareth is twice that in predominantly Jewish Upper Nazareth, the latter is twice the size of Nazareth. “There has been a policy, since the establishment of the state, that is against development, especially for land [meant for] the Arab population.”
Odeh also criticized the budgetary allocations for not dealing with poverty, while overemphasizing female participation in the workforce. And he added that Arab villages have suffered from killing sprees – 80 Arabs killed in violent incidents, with only 3% of the cases solved – as the police has failed to invest sufficient time and energy in apprehending suspects.
While the government may be allocating the most funds ever to Arab municipalities – surpassing even the progressive Rabin administration in public expenditure – some audience members took issue with the rhetoric coming from politicians.
A journalist from The Marker questioned Groner about how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could, on one hand, pump billions of shekels in to the Arab sector and on the other hand, warn about Arabs voting some mere hours before the 2015 election.
“This statement was on a certain day and it was 10 seconds. I would expect that the prime minister's attitude would be measured by the decisions we made and not by a momentary statement on election day,” the PMO director-general said.
Aside from Groner and Odeh, Nazareth’s Mayor Ali Salam addressed the crowd, while President Reuven Rivlin spoke via video link.
“The State of Israel, without Israeli Arabs, cannot exist,” Salam proclaimed. “In all schools, there are Arabs. In all hospitals, there are Arabs. In every place, there are Arabs.”