Coalition Approves Billions for Arab Society, Assigns Arab C...
Coalition Approves Billions for Arab Society, Assigns Arab Chairs to Influential Committees
The Bennett-Lapid government inaugurated this past June is both among Israel’s most tenuous, bringing together ideologically diverse parties, and the first governing coalition in Israel’s history to include an Arab party (Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am), raising many questions and interest about the implications for Arab society and Jewish-Arab relations. In the weeks since its formation, major decisions include internal passage of a government budget and parliamentary committee assignments have yielded sizable allocations for Arab society and influential political assignments for Arab Knesset members. If the proposed budget passes a full vote by the Knesset and government ministries on November 4th and the government holds, events of the recent weeks suggest that Arab socio-economic issues will be more prominent in the national political discourse.
What’s in the Budget for Arab Society?
In Dec 2015, Israel passed Government Resolution 922, an unprecedented 5-year plan for Arab society involving 15 billion NIS. While a subsequent plan, informally referred to as “923,” has been in development over the last couple of years, final negotiations around allocations from the proposed state budget took place with Ra’am having considerable negotiating leverage. The final budget contains funding for new 5-year plans that are nearly double those of 922, plus additional budgets for designated priorities:
- 21.5 Billion NIS: 5-year plan for general Arab society (Follow up to GR-922)
- 5 Billion NIS: 5-year plan for Negev Bedouin
- 3 Billion NIS: 5-year plan for Druze and Circassians
- 2.5 Billion NIS: Plan to address crime and violence in Arab society. Of this, 1.5 billion NIS is slated to go to the Ministry of Public Security and 1 billion NIS will be allocated toward efforts addressing the root structural causes of crime.
- 2 Billion NIS: Transportation infrastructure and roads over the next several years.
These different allocations total to roughly 34 billion NIS in budgets for Arab society, most of which extend over a 5-year period. The budget describes an additional 20 billion NIS for long-term road and infrastructure development in Arab society, leading to public discussion of nearly NIS 54 billion in budgets for Arab society. However, only 2 billion of this initiative has been approved and included as part of the proposed budget.
In addition to increased budgets, Arab Knesset Members were assigned as chairs of two influential Knesset committees. MK Mansour Abbas will lead the Special Knesset Committee on Arab Affairs, a new committee that will focuses on priority issues in Arab society and is anticipated to be instrumental in monitoring and affecting implementation of budgets for Arab society. MK Saeed Alkharumi, a Bedouin and Ra’am MK, was appointed chairperson of the very influential Internal Affairs and Environment Committee that deals with policy and legislation on a slew of areas that are significant to Arab society including local governance and urban development.
The increased influence of Arab political figures in these Knesset committees are expected to contribute to growing coordination between Jewish and Arab leaders, national, local, and civil society around effective implementation of government budgets. The Abraham Initiatives, a civil society organization promoting shared society and greater inclusion of Arab citizens of Israel, shared: “Acknowledging that this is yet to be a clear picture, we can already cautiously say that the political coalition partnership between Arabs and Jews bears tidings of some significant matters for Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCI).”
Arab and Jewish Public Discourse
Another outcome of an Arab part in the coalition is greater visibility of budgets and policy discussions pertaining to Arab society in public discourse. While this is generating greater mainstream awareness of Arab socio-economic priorities in the mainstream, it also means these budgets are more prone to politicization than the first five year plan in 2015.
Arab: Within Arab society, there are many lauding the doubling of budget allocations for Arab society as “unprecedented” and with real potential to make a significant difference on priority issues in Arab communities. Others argue that did the budgets are still insufficient to make a dent in the real needs of Arab society, while the compromise on issues of civic equality and national identity in order to be part of the coalition are more harmful in the long run. Joint List MK Aida Toma Suleiman recently called it a “very bad budget” because it increases funding for Jewish communities over the Green Line, reduces the social safety net, and lacks solution for housing shortages and unrecognized villages. Odeh Bisharat argues that the 34 billion NIS figure is misleading because the majority of the funds were promised by the previous government or precariously depend on the cooperation of relevant ministries. He also believes that categorizing Arabs separately in the budget makes it easier for the government to neglect its basic responsibility to the population as citizens.
Jewish: Within Jewish society, some are praising the budget for Arab society as long overdue and ultimately in the best interest of all Israelis, even if Abbas’ back-door deals were key to making it happen. However, the topic has also become a focus of the opposition’s critique of the full budget. MK Netanyahu, now the opposition leader, referenced the 34 billion NIS as the” Abbas tax”, framing it as a political bribe for keeping Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party in the coalition. MK Yoav Kish, an opposition member, also complained in a tweet that the budget for Arab Society was equal to the defense budget, provoking significant public ire. The Globes Newspaper issued a breakdown showing that, at most, allocations for Arab society less than one-fifth of the defense budget and more likely significantly less.
As “Abbas Tax” gains traction on social media, political commentator Afif Abu Much argues that this discourse reinforces how Arab citizens of Israel are seen as outsiders: “Should it not be taken for granted that the state will work for the welfare of its citizens and invest in the security, infrastructure, education and health of all its citizens?“