Israel has approved a reported billion-dollar budget meant to improve the living conditions of its Arab citizens, who have long complained of discrimination and are among the country’s poorest residents.
The government did not release the exact amount approved, but Israeli media reported it was between 10 and 15 billion shekels ($2.5 billion to $3.8 billion), to be spread over four to five years. It will be devoted to education, transportation, housing, culture, sports and other areas.
“This is a significant addition meant to assist minority populations and to reduce gaps,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
Experts have long warned that Israel’s long-term economic health is at risk so long as it doesn’t improve the economic standing of its Arab citizens, one of the country’s fastest-growing populations.
Arab legislators cautiously welcomed the initiative, but said it falls short of fully addressing the community’s needs.
Yousef Jabareen, an Arab member of the Knesset, said the plan was a step in “the right direction.” But, he said, “it does not address all the socio-economic needs of the community and falls short of bridging the historical gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel.” He said Arab lawmakers had lobbied for an investment twice as large as the amount reportedly approved.
The agreement was not linked to national service, as Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Immigration and Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin had sought to include, an Arab Joint List source told The Jerusalem Post. The most the Likud MKs succeeding in obtaining was a promise that a committee will be established to review the matter.
Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman lashed out at the deal as a political payoff to elements who are disloyal to the state.
“The next time, the Arabs will flock to the polls funded by Netanyahu,” he said, referring to the latter’s much-criticized speech in the last election warning that Arabs were going to the polls en masse in order to get Likud supporters out to vote.
Lieberman declared that “while Islamic State is threatening to destroy Israel, the Israeli government finds it necessary to strengthen the Joint Arab List – just as Islamic State’s ultimate aim is the destruction of Israel.”
A Likud source dismissed Lieberman’s comments as nonsense. Far from funding subversives, he said, it “will strengthen law enforcement in the minority sector with emphasis on illegal construction.”
“This is the first time that the transfer of funds to the Arab sector is conditional on the cessation of illegal building.”