The last thing most Israelis want right now is another election; they have been through four in just three years. For the past month, however, fears have grown across Israel that a fifth election is on the horizon, if the country’s broad coalition government fails to secure enough backing within the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – for a new state budget by a November 14 deadline. If the budget vote fails, the government will fall.
The coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett comprises left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties – a big-tent political alliance unprecedented in Israeli history. And it has resulted in a chain of other unprecedented events, one of the most striking of which is the inclusion of an independent Arab party, Raam, in the administration.
Getting such a diverse team to agree on major policies has proved difficult; at the start of October, the coalition members reportedly agreed not to submit any controversial bills that could divide the government until after the budget is passed.
Within a week, however, Raam’s party leader Mansour Abbas issued a letter to Mr Bennet, in which he outlined a list of demands to alleviate some of the vast inequalities between Jewish and Arab citizens. They included changes to construction and planning laws that discriminate against Arabs; the legalisation of Bedouin villages housing 90,000 people in the Negev Desert (Israel considers the villages informal settlements); a path to citizenship for families formed by marriages between Israelis and West Bank Palestinians; and a financial package to upgrade infrastructure in Arab communities.
In the Cabinet’s fraught negotiations – which have been complicated by further disagreements, including one over the defence ministry’s decision to designate six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organisations – only the last of Mr Abbas’s demands has been agreed so far. But the scale on which it is to be implemented is significant. This week, the Cabinet approved a package of nearly $10 billion to be included in its budget proposal, allocated to an array of development projects for Israel’s Arab community over five years.
Similar initiatives have been promised before, but never fully implemented, and of nowhere near the size proposed now. If passed, the plan will invest in urban infrastructure upgrades, improved access to health care (particularly for women) and employment (including in Israel’s burgeoning technology sector), among other things.
The justification for such a plan is clear. It would go some way in correcting the extreme economic inequality that has been allowed to fester between Jewish and Arab Israelis, and which has only undermined peaceful co-existence. More than half of Arab Israeli citizens live in poverty. Arabs are denied access to many public benefits, and their cities and neighbourhoods have suffered neglect, leading to heightened social tensions.
Even so, Mr Abbas’s critics from other Arab parties have accused Raam of ignoring larger issues, such as the preponderance of illegal settlements on Palestinian land and persistent abuses towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, for the sake of winning what they feel will ultimately become empty promises.
They have a point. A plan to invest $4bn in Arab communities was announced in 2016, but much of it never reached its intended recipients – instead getting held up by bureaucracy, or misappropriated. And the reality is that while a path to prosperity for Arab Israelis could rectify several historical injustices, it will not reverse entirely the structural problems that prevent long-term co-existence – the most serious of which is continued conflict with Palestinians.
Nonetheless, the new plan would be a step in the right direction. And it demonstrates to Israelis – Jews and Arabs alike – that when Arabs are given a voice in government, Israel has a greater chance of raising prospects for all of its citizens.