Israel's Arab Social Gap

A sympathetic Israeli government and a strong advocacy group move to address socioeconomic inequities affecting the country's Arab minority

SINCE the formation of a Labor-led coalition government, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's pledge to reorder his country's national priorities to focus on Israel's economic and social challenges, the 18 percent of Israel's citizens who are Arabs have been hopeful that their needs will be addressed as well.

Israel's Arab citizens have reason to be optimistic. They are aware that their voting power enabled Mr. Rabin to form the government. A majority of Arab voters chose Labor and other Zionist parties in June 1992, a shift in the recent trend of supporting Arab-based political parties. Recognizing the increasing significance of the Arab vote, Jewish political leaders are likely to be more responsive to this sizable constituency.

In his inaugural address to the Knesset last July, Rabin said "it is proper to admit [that] for years we have erred in our treatment of Israel's Arab citizens." He promised that his government would do everything possible to close the "substantial gaps between the Jewish and Arab communities in a number of spheres."

One area in which the gaps are pronounced is education. Israel's state comptroller reported this year that the Ministry of Education spends only 55 cents on an Arab child for every dollar spent on a Jewish child. Also revealed were discrepancies in terms of physical facilities, access to pre-school education, the quality of elementary and secondary education, and dropout rates. Arab schools are lagging far behind those in Jewish communities. While Arabs and Jews, by agreement, attend separate schools unt il university, inequities in education and other areas should not be tolerated by the government.

Labor's commitment to redress the inequities in the economic and social development of Arab and Jewish communities was asserted in a detailed agreement reached with Arab political parties in July to secure their support in the Knesset for the narrow coalition government. Yet, while a commitment to address the concerns of Arabs in Israel appears to be a priority of this government, Arab citizens have been dismayed in the past when pronouncements by Labor as well as Likud governments did not lead to concre te actions; other national priorities took precedence.

Actively encouraging this government to implement its stated policy guidelines regarding Israeli Arabs is Sikkuy, a year-old Jewish-Arab advocacy organization founded by Alouph Hareven, one of Israel's leading champions of Jewish-Arab relations. During the past decade Mr. Hareven coordinated the development of curricula dealing with coexistence that are widely used in Israeli schools. The broad political spectrum reflected in the growing numbers of prominent Israeli Arabs and Jews who support Sikkuy unde rscores its central message: Improving the conditions and status of the Arab minority is not a partisan matter, but a national priority, because Jews and Arabs always will live together as citizens of Israel.

The Jewish-Arab partnership coalescing around Sikkuy (Hebrew for "a chance") is significant. Historically, fundamental changes affecting the daily lives of Israeli Arabs came about only when a joint Jewish-Arab effort was undertaken to lobby actively on a particular issue. Though some Israelis have long recognized the socioeconomic needs of Israeli Arabs, there has not been until now an advocacy group with the solid base of support and access to the highest levels of government that Sikkuy presents.

Sikkuy is pressing the government to adopt a comprehensive, long-term program to bring about equality in budgetary allocations to Arab and Jewish communities in education, municipal development, social services, and economic growth, and to integrate Arabs into national political, economic, and social institutions by making them part of the decisionmaking process - especially in areas affecting them. A draft program, prepared for Sikkuy by Dov Kehat, a former director-general of the Interior Ministry, has

been shared with all government ministers. In addition, Sikkuy is urging the government to report yearly to the Knesset on progress made in implementing its own policy guidelines regarding the Arab minority, which in many ways conform with those Sikkuy has been articulating. Sikkuy's own annual assessments will be important for monitoring progress as well.

On the local level, Sikkuy's co-director Faisal Azaiza is encouraging Arab leaders to take initiatives for their communities. An innovative training program for mayors and their staffs is underway that will lead to the creation of strategic planning units in Arab municipalities. Comprehensive municipal planning does not exist in the Arab sector, Mr. Azaiza notes.

Traditional municipal management that favors a particular clan or family must be replaced with schemes that take into account the community as a whole. This will enable communities to increase local tax revenues, which have been sorely lagging, and make more effective use of local and national government resources for development.

By focusing on the responsibilities of both national and local leadership, Sikkuy is seeking to facilitate the realization of civic equality for all Israeli citizens. Endorsing the Sikkuy approach would be a major step by Rabin toward advancing and integrating Israel's Arab minority.

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