Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in full campaign mode.
On March 10 – a month ahead of the April 9 national elections – in a bid to
boost right-wing turnout, he wrote on Instagram, “According to the basic
nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
There is no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel. They have equal rights
like all of us, and the Likud government has invested more in the Arab sector
than any other government.”
Many of his political rivals on the center-left, along with commentators and celebrities in Israel and abroad, accuse Netanyahu of demonizing Israeli Arabs, and of being a racist. But almost no one seems to focus on Netanyahu as prime minister having invested more in the Arab sector than any other previous government. Nor are they focused on how Arabs in Israel have fared much better during his 10 years in office.
It is a well-known fact that words spoken by politicians are cheap, while their campaign promises are even cheaper. Consequently, politicians should be judged according to their past actions, not according to their heated campaign rhetoric. Based on his actions, Netanyahu has been good for Arab Israelis, for no politically motivated motive other than their potential as citizens to improve their situation and that of the country he loves. In contrast, the leadership of the Arab Israeli parties in the Knesset have deserted their Arab voters. They have obsessed more over the Palestinians cause, boycotting the state, and dismantling Israel’s Jewish character, than they have addressed their own voters’ welfare.
On April 9, Israeli Arabs should do the unthinkable, and vote for their own self-interests instead of wasting their votes on the same empty slogans and lost causes of their leaders. In the polling booth, behind closed curtains, they should think of voting for Netanyahu, who can make their community great.
Rotem Sela, the 35-year-old actress and model who started the recent controversy, denounced the Netanyahu government as racist with its “Bibi or Tibi” campaign. “When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal?” she asked. If Rotem had Googled Netanyahu’s history, she would have noticed that this is exactly what his government has done.
On December 30, 2015, the government, led by Netanyahu, approved Government Resolution 922. This groundbreaking, five-year economic development plan for the Arab sector is aimed at tackling the major gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and enhancing the social and economic integration of Arabs into Israeli society.
The comprehensive plan calls for allocations of up to NIS 15 billion (around $4.2b) for the development of Arab towns and cities in various fields, such as education, transportation, welfare services, health, employment, housing, infrastructure, culture and public security. This is a means of closing socio-economic gaps, enhancing economic development and providing equal opportunities for the Arab community in Israel. The 2015 plan provided extra funding to the Arab community on top of the NIS 7b. allocated the decade before.
The plan was developed by the Netanyahu government in partnership with Arab mayors. (It was approved a few months after the prime minister, on Election Day in March 2015, posted a controversial Facebook message, in which he asked his supporters to vote in order offset the high turnout of Arab voters who were being bused by leftist organizations to polling stations.)
Behind the huge investments have been Netanyahu’s strong belief in the potential of Arab communities to flourish, and his understanding that Israel, as the Start-Up Nation, cannot sustain its economy without the equal participation of its Arab citizens in the educational system and in the workforce.
But much more, the plan not only treated Arab citizens equally, in some cases it even gave preferential treatment. It accelerated their integration into the economy with government funding, ensuring that Arabs were represented in the budget in accordance with their 20% representation in society.
President Reuven Rivlin rebuked Netanyahu during the recent controversy. He reminded the prime minister that there are “no second-class citizens.” However, in 2015, Rivlin congratulated Netanyahu personally on passing the plan to promote equality.
“This is an important and vital step on the road to closing the gaps which have existed for years,” he said at the time. “Clearly there is a long road ahead, but the government’s decision, under your leadership, represents a turning point, and an unprecedented confidence-building measure.”
The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper called Netanyahu’s recent words “criminal” and a racist incitement against Arab citizens. But in 2015, it praised the plan, saying, “Amid the bigotry, Israel makes a giant step toward equality... the Israeli government did something of historic importance this week and corrected its long standing discrimination against the Arab community.”
To understand its importance, it is important to know that prior the plan, only 5% of the Israeli national budget for informal education was allocated to Arab society, and only 7% was allocated to public transportation. Noting that many Arab communities did not have public transportation or roads, the plan called for additional spending to be earmarked for Arab communities until parity is achieved with Jewish communities.
Only 3.5% of industrial zones in Israel were in Arab communities before 2015. The plan called for giving incentives to employers to hire Arab workers. It increased the budget for day care centers, employment counseling centers and for the building of new schools in Arab communities.
Consequently, under Netanyahu’s watch and under his initiatives, the number of Arab students on all levels has doubled within the last decade.
Arabs in universities and colleges currently make up 17% and the student population. Those in master’s and doctoral level studies reached 13% and 6.3% respectively, while the percentage of high school graduation has risen 19% over 10 years ago. Arab enrollment in Israeli medical schools is already reaching compatibility with their demographic, and their numbers in allied health professions is even higher, as it is for nurses and pharmacists.
Moreover, the Israeli government plan brought more Arab women into the labor market. It has developed services, promoted greater job opportunities, and enhanced their access to education, heralding a cultural change in Arab society.
As of 2017, Arab women comprised 12% of Israeli undergraduate students, up from 9% in 2009.
Employment among Arab women in Israel has risen 6% in the past two years, and doubled since 2010, with employment rates reaching 40% by the end of 2018, ahead of government targets.
Arab citizens comprised 11.3% of government employees, and 4% of the hi-tech professional workforce, up from 0.5% in 2008, all contributing to the poverty rate in the Arab sector having decreased.
While his political rivals talk the big talk about equality, Netanyahu continues to walk the big walk in implementing it.