Israel extends a hand to Israeli Arabs

A plan to spend more than $10 billion on the Arab community is a sign that Israel sees its democracy as guaranteeing equality for all.

AP
Mansour Abbas, leader of the first Arab party to be in an Israeli governing coalition, speaks during a Knesset session in Jerusalem June 13.

Israel took a major step this week toward treating its non-Jewish citizens, who make up a fifth of the population, as equal members of its democracy. The ruling coalition’s Cabinet approved more than $10 billion in spending over five years to uplift Israeli Arabs, from fighting a crime wave in their communities to reducing a wide education gap between Arabs and Jews.

This financial corrective to the historical neglect of Israel’s Arab citizens reflects a plan by coalition leader Yair Lapid to heal “the crisis within us.” Even though Israel enjoys rising prosperity, more than half of Arab Israelis still live under the poverty line and mostly in separate enclaves. A study in 2019 found that “a Jewish student in Israel can graduate from high school without ever having met a single Arab student in person, and the reverse is also true.”

If the plan is approved by parliament next month as expected, it could also set a template for ways to ease tensions between Israel and Palestinians living in the West Bank. (Many Israelis refer to Arabs living within Israel proper as Palestinians.)

It also reflects the new politics of Israel, represented by a 4-month-old coalition under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The coalition not only includes parties from the left and right but also the first independent Arab party in a governing coalition in Israeli history. The Islamist Raam party holds enough seats in the Knesset to nudge the coalition to approve the spending package. Party leader Mansour Abbas says the money “will go a long way to close the gaps between Jewish and Arab sectors.”

Another reason for the spending package is a drive to reconcile residents in cities where Arabs and Jews live close to each other. Racial riots between the two groups broke out last May during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

The main purpose of Israel’s diverse coalition, says Mr. Lapid, is to “find the shared good.” The spending plan may help young Arab Israelis become more attached to Israel, not as a Jewish state but as a democracy with equal rights for all. “The government will do everything it can to unite every part of Israeli society,” said Mr. Lapid.

Greater equality in Israel might help all people and nations in the Middle East to see each other as equals.

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