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Mansour Abbas puts mark on Israeli development plan for Arab communities

The coalition Ra’am party is proud of the approval by the government of a five-year plan for the economic development of Israeli Arab towns and villages.
People sit in a garden in front of the Knesset, Jerusalem, Oct. 17, 2021.

After weeks of debate and ahead of the deadline for passing the state budget, the government passed Oct. 24 the economic development five-year plan for 2022-2026 to close gaps in the Arab society. The plan’s budget totals 30 billion Israeli shekels ($9.4 billion), and includes a series of moves to develop employment, technological innovation and hi-tech, health services, housing, and so on. In effect, it is a continuation of "Decision 922," passed by the Netanyahu government at the end of 2015, which will end this year.

Likewise, in light of the rising crime in the Arab community, the multiyear national plan to deal with crime and violence in the Arab community passed, with a budget of 2.5 billion shekels ($786,000). This plan was formulated at the Ministry for Public Security, and will allow the government to work to increase enforcement, dismantle criminal organizations, and support personal and communal security. 

The new economic development plan was put together at the Ministry for Social Equality, headed by Minister Meirav Cohen, who wrote on Facebook, “This is a historic plan that translates the value of equality to reality.” She said it is the product of cooperation with the rest of the government ministries and deep strategic work on behalf of the Authority for the Socioeconomic Development of the Arab Community, headed by Hassan Towafra. Listing the goals of the plan, Towafra noted proudly, “The plan was unanimously approved by the government.”

This statement is significant. It reflects the involvement over the past few months of Ra’am Chairman Mansour Abbas and of other members of his party, in every stage of the buildup of the economic development plan. In fact, the plan has become for them a flagship issue and their first real achievement following the historic inclusion in the coalition. In other words, Ra’am is starting to demonstrate to its voting public in particular and the Arab community in general that the historic step Abbas took in joining the coalition wasn’t for nothing, but has paid off. Indeed, the social media posting bonanza that Ra’am members held online, publishing comprehensive details on where every shekel in the plan will go and the list of objectives, clearly resonates these feelings of pride.

Only three days before the approval of both plans, Abbas, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Welfare Minister Meir Cohen and Deputy Minister for Public Security Yoav Segalovich visited together the Negev region. On that visit, Lapid announced that three unrecognized Bedouin villages will now be recognized by the government and receive infrastructure. The recognition of the three communities is expected to signal the beginning of a process that should touch several more such Bedouin villages in the south of Israel.

These are all good news, but the way to reaching these plans and announcements was not an easy one. Last month, there were several reports that Abbas and Ra’am were not pleased at the conduct of the coalition and their failure to fulfill coalition agreement promises. In fact, Ra’am threatened not to support the budget at the second and third readings. Such a move would mean that the government will have no majority for the budget vote, and will hence be dismantled.

The man who rescued Ra’am, the coalition and the budget, was none other than Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who pushed his ministry to work toward Abbas’ demands and make real advancement in the budget negotiations. 

If that’s not enough, on the eve of the passing of the five-year economic development plan another problem arose. This time it was the name given to the plan by Ra’am — “Nahda Plan.” Associates of Abbas told Al-Monitor that the name — “Revival” or “Renaissance” in Arabic — was given innocently, signaling the renewal that the plan was expected to bring about. Still, some members of the Cabinet saw things differently, fearing the political connotation that the name Nahda carries. (It is also the name of a Muslim Brotherhood party in Tunisia.) They were concerned that head of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu would exploit this connotation against the plan and the government. Subsequently, the plan was renamed “Takadum” ("Advancement").

The renaming of the plan did not stop Netanyahu from criticizing it and the cooperation with the Muslim Ra’am party. “Everything [in Israel] is getting more expensive, to fund the billions that Bennett is transferring to the Islamic movement,” Netanyahu accused. Netanyahu conveniently forgot to mention that he himself had advanced a five-year plan when he served as prime minister. Highlighting that, Abbas revealed Oct. 27 at the Knesset podium that in one of his meetings with Netanyahu, when the latter was trying to persuade him to join his government, Netanyahu read to him the speech he was preparing for such an occasion. A speech that eulogized a partnership between the Likud and Ra’am.

With the approval of both plans, the Ra’am party seems to be on a roll. On Oct. 27, the Knesset approved at a preliminary reading a law proposal for planning and construction, proposed by Ra’am Knesset member Walid Taha. This proposal should enable Arab and Bedouin homes that were built illegally to be connected to the national electrical grid. A similar law was proposed by Arab Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi from the opposition last August, but failed to garner Knesset approval.

How is the economic development plan perceived among the Arab community? Opinions seem to be divided. Attorney Reda Anbusi, former senior prosecutor at the state prosecutor’s office, told Al-Monitor, “The passage of the plan is a very important and welcome step. Ra’am joining the coalition is a precedent-setting move by any measure and the passage of the plan signals a change in political power and its influence. However, the true test of the plan is in its implementation and execution, as the experience of the past has taught us that promises of the government on these issues are not implemented.”

On the other hand, Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center for the rights of Arabs citizens of Israel, expressed dissatisfaction at the plan in conversation with Al-Monitor, saying, “We expected that there will be a plan to close gaps in poverty, housing, industry, employment and education. We must remember that the state budget for 2022 stands at 600 billion shekels [$188 billion], and of this more than 200 billion shekels [$63 billion] is for development and infrastructure plans, and only 6 billion shekels [$1.9 billion] are allocated to a fifth of the citizens. We expected more, especially since Arab Knesset members and former human rights activists are now part of the coalition.”

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