The points that the OECD made echo those of a 2003 Israeli judicial commission headed by then-Supreme Court justice Theodor Or, appointed after police killed 13 demonstrators amid rioting in Arab communities in October 2000. The commission looked not only at the violence and its causes, but also at the inequalities faced by Israeli Arabs and offered recommendations for improving the situation. The government of Ariel Sharon endorsed the findings but never implemented them, which is why some regard the past ten years as a “lost decade” in terms of Arab advancement.
Nevertheless, there are signs that both the Israeli government—led by a conservative Likudnik, Benjamin Netanyahu—and the country’s business sector have finally heard the warnings offered by the Or report and the OECD, as well as those proffered from NGOs including The Abraham Fund, Sikkuy and, more recently, a task force made up of 90 American Jewish foundations. Last winter the government approved an 800-million shekel ($225 million) plan for economic development in the Arab sector. The plan includes public investments in infrastructures and job training. At the same time, the government announced its intention to find a partner to join it in establishing an investment capital fund to finance business ventures in the sector.
Avishay Braverman is a rising star in the Labor party, which is looking for new leadership after falling to its lowest level of support ever in the 2009 election. He is a cabinet member in the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he serves as minister “in charge of minorities.” An economist by training with a Ph.D. from Stanford University and 14 years experience at the World Bank, Braverman entered politics in 2005 after 16 years as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he is widely credited for the Beer Sheva–based school’s rapid growth and development. During his tenure, for example, the university opened its doors to a number of qualified Bedouin students from the surrounding area, a group that until recently had very limited representation in Israeli institutions of higher learning.
“Israeli Jews just don’t know Israeli Arabs,” says Braverman. “They are so ignorant that they think most of them are a fifth column, or fundamentalist Muslims.” He is well aware that those Jews include some of his cabinet colleagues, like Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who appeared before the U.N. General Assembly in September to present a plan to swap the Triangle with the Palestinians for settlements, a proposal that the prime minister had to disavow publicly a few days later. Many Jews also have concerns about Arab loyalty. “But eventually,” says Braverman, “you have to choose your path. Israel is a liberal democracy. And democracy does not just mean majority rule; you also have to respect minority rights.”
As a Labor man, it is not surprising that Braverman approaches the question from the perspective of a liberal Zionist, whose world view is founded on the belief that it’s only fair—and consistent with Jewish values—for the Jewish state to rectify the material inequalities in the treatment of its Arab citizens. He is also convinced that both Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel want their country to grow economically: “What people want is a strong economy, education and respect. Believe me, if they get that, they will support it,” he says, sounding like the candidate he would like to be in an upcoming election.
Braverman is quick to give credit to Ayman Saif, the “brilliant” young Arab economist who, as head of the government’s Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector, designed the plan. The department is part of the Prime Minister’s Office but is located in a rented space in Jerusalem’s Talpiot Industrial Zone on the other side of town. His office suite is marked only by a piece of paper taped to the outside door.
It was already late in the workday when I arrived, and after we spoke for an hour or so, Saif seemed to be in a hurry to head home to his newborn child. He lives in Arara, the town in the Triangle where he grew up and where his extended family remains. He returns home every night, traveling via Road No. 6, the Trans-Israel tollway, where he “only” has to travel an hour and a half each way.