This must have been a trying week for all the people who wrongly believe that Israel’s prime minister is an unabashed anti-Arab racist: Over the past few days, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has unveiled not one, but two major initiatives to benefit Israeli Arabs – initiatives that even the far-left Haaretz, which loathes him, deemed “praiseworthy” and even “revolutionary.”
Here’s how Haaretz’s report on the first initiative opens: “For the first time ever, an Israeli government team has documented the extent of the land and housing shortage in Israel’s Arab communities and proposed recommendations for ending it.”
Though the housing shortage has been one of the Arab community’s biggest gripes for decades, no other prime minister in Israel’s 67 years of existence has done much about it. But Netanyahu’s last government not only advanced the establishment of the first new Arab city in Israel’s history, it also created an interministerial task force to draft more comprehensive recommendations, which were presented to his current government this week.
Moreover, as Haaretz noted in a subsequent analysis, these recommendations are nothing less than “a revolution.” Inter alia, after decades in which the borders of Arab towns remained unchanged despite a sevenfold increase in population, the new proposal finally recommends expanding these borders to provide Arab communities with more land for residential construction.
The second initiative deals with education. Here, too, the previous Netanyahu government took significant steps, adopting a five-year plan to boost funding for Arab schools by a billion shekels (about $260 million). But many pundits predicted it would be scrapped by the new education minister, Naftali Bennett of the rightist Jewish Home party.
Instead, Bennett not only announced its continuation this week, but added an important new element. All preschools – Jewish and Arab – will henceforth be entitled to a second aide, rather than having only one teacher and one aide for classes of up to 35 children. But in well-off communities, the government will underwrite only 50% of the cost while, in poor communities, it will cover 90%. As a Haaretz analysis noted, most of the poorest communities are Arab, so this decision will give a huge boost to early-childhood education in Arab towns. That prompted the paper, which loathes Bennett as well, to headline its analysis, “Naftali Bennett: Unlikely champion of Arab education.”
These initiatives shouldn’t actually surprise anybody. While the far-right fringes may enjoy making Arabs miserable, mainstream conservative politicians, like Netanyahu and Bennett, are generally far more interested in ensuring that 20 percent of the country’s population will be productive, self-supporting citizens rather than wards of the welfare system. And that means ensuring they have access to such basics as quality education, jobs, and housing, which is why Netanyahu’s previous governments also invested heavily in Arab integration in other ways.
Yet there’s another reason why Netanyahu’s allegedly “hardline” governments are precisely the ones taking revolutionary steps to increase Arab integration: Politicians who remain under the delusion that Israeli-Palestinian peace is imminently achievable tend to view all other issues as lower priority, on the theory that once peace is achieved, many of those other issues will largely solve themselves. First, they expect peace to produce huge financial dividends, giving Israel much more money to throw at all its other problems. Second, they expect Arab-Jewish tensions within Israel to largely dissipate since they consider the lack of Palestinian statehood to be Israeli Arabs’ main grievance.
Even assuming both propositions were true (which I don’t), they’re obviously irrelevant if peace isn’t imminently achievable. Thus a government that doesn’t believe peace is around the corner can’t afford to postpone addressing the country’s other pressing problems; it needs to do the best it can with the resources it has right now. With regard to Israeli Arabs, that means trying to address their real educational, employment and housing needs even while recognizing that tensions over the Palestinian conflict will persist – especially since repeated polls have shown that not only do Israeli Arabs actually consider these bread-and-butter issues their top priority, but that addressing them does boost their identification with the state. One survey last May, for instance, found that 65% of Israeli Arabs now declare themselves proud to be Israeli; another this February found that 55% identify with the Israeli flag.
But why let the facts disturb a longstanding liberal dogma? After all, we all know “right-wing” governments can’t possibly be good for Israeli Arabs – even when they’re taking unprecedented steps to rectify discrimination against them.
Originally published in Commentary on June 12, 2015