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Economic equality is an unconditional right

Right-wing ministers in Israel’s government are putting their own political interests over the economic and social needs of the country’s Arab citizens.

By Rawnak Natour and Abed Kanaaneh

A damaged section of the wall separating Lod’s Palestinian neighborhood of Pardes Shanir and the Jewish town of Nir Tzvi, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A damaged section of the wall separating Lod’s Palestinian neighborhood of Pardes Shanir and the Jewish town of Nir Tzvi, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Arab citizens of the State of Israel have suffered from discrimination by the establishment since the day the country declared independence in 1948, discrimination that is reflected in almost every aspect of their lives: land confiscation, discrimination in housing and employment, extreme disparities in health and educational services, and an absence of infrastructure and proper sources of funding for local government councils. This has given rise to serious problems such as poverty, violence and environmental harm. In recent years this historical discrimination has been joined by a series of racist and anti-democratic laws passed by the far-right government.

Under these complex conditions, the present government, which we see as the most racist ever towards Arab citizens, recently approved an economic plan to support the Arab sectors of Israeli society. The plan has been described as historic and unprecedented, but has also aroused surprise and suspicion. As expected, reactions in Arab society were mixed, ranging from sweeping support to profound skepticism regarding the plan’s implementation and its real intentions.

Still, not a single official or member of the Arab establishment in Israel has opposed the plan unequivocally. Despite the many difficulties involved in approving it in a series of cabinet meetings, all in all it was welcomed.

The Israeli Right, on the other hand, had reservations about the plan and even opposed it. The objections were primarily rooted in the realization that the big difference between this and previous plans lies in the principle of introducing a change in the budgetary mechanisms on which it is based – as opposed to topical remedies like one-time grants, as was done in the past.

This important principle, that the entire system itself needs to be changed, along with the structures that created the institutionalized discrimination and disparities in the first place, is the main and most important message of the new plan, and that is why it also frightens opponents of equality and partnership. For years The Arab leadership, as well as Sikkuy and many other civil society organizations, have demanded the advancement of full equality in all areas of life by means of this principle.

Genuine equality cannot be achieved with one-time grants. Only a profound change in the very system that created the disparities, and even the use of affirmative action in certain areas, can create genuine equality over the long term. We are therefore pleased that this time around senior Finance Ministry officials and the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector understood that, and insisted on it – even if in effect the plan is still partial and doesn’t deal with all the necessary areas.

Still, we will see the significant results of this plan only in the medium and long term. We believe that a change in the 15 budgeting mechanisms spelled out in the plan – including public transportation, informal education, day-care centers, industrial areas and infrastructure – will allocate about NIS 10 billion in the next five years, in addition to the NIS 2.1 billion designated to be transferred directly to the local councils. But that will take time and requires patience.

Applying public pressure

Yet we must not ignore the shortcomings and weaknesses of this plan, and should try to change them as soon as possible. Our next step in the struggle for equality is applying public, professional and legal pressure to expand the plan to the many areas that are still not included in it. Additionally, we will be watching closely to ensure the plan is fully will be implemented and that the local authorities receive what was promised to them.

Despite the declarations of various ministers about imposing conditions and stipulations on the plan’s implementation, we insist that it be implemented without stipulations – as it was planned and approved by the government. The professionals who created the plan did so out of concern for the future of Israel’s economy, and never imagined that elements of it would be made conditional on the conduct of Arab local authorities. Those professionals understand the urgent need to close gaps and the extent of the discrimination and underdevelopment in the local councils.

Statements by various right-wing ministers about conditioning the plan’s implementation, which arose only after the recent terror attack in Tel Aviv, are not related to the economic and social needs of Arab citizens or to the Israeli economy, but mainly to the political needs of the ministers themselves, who see the plan as a threat to their parliamentary future.

We will stand in the breach, and together with the professionals in the government ministries and in civil society, we will ensure that the plan is implemented – unconditionally and without reservations. It won’t solve all the problems of Arab society, and it will certainly take time, but the long road to equality of rights and resources to which the Arab public is entitled as a basic civil right, begins with these steps by this government, in spite of its infuriating and inciting attitude.

Rawnak Natour is Co-Executive Director of Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality and Abed Kanaaneh is the co-director of Sikkuy’s Equality Policy Department.

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