Ehud Olmert’s government accused of cynical maneuvering over “affirmative action” measures

I’lam, the only media centre for the Arab minority in Israel, issues a monthly “Alternative News Briefing” to journalists and others interested in the region as a corrective to the distorted coverage of events affecting Israel’s Arab citizens by the Israeli media. The following article was taken from Alternative News Briefing No. 22.

Also in this Briefing

  • Extent of planned attack on Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation emerges weeks later
  • Land Day protests highlight Israel’s continuing attempts at ethnic cleansing

    Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talking to the media during a ceremony in the Jerusalem residence of Israeli President Moshe Katsav. (MaanImages/Inbal Rose)

    A fortnight before the elections, the Israeli government announced an “affirmative action” program to reverse discrimination against three groups - Arabs, Ethiopians and disabled people - in recruitment to the civil service.

    The measures, announced on March 12 at the weekly cabinet meeting, will include creating 37 and a half jobs a year for the next three years in government ministries to be offered to Arab candidates “whenever possible”. A similar number of existing jobs in the various ministries will be made available to Arab candidates if vacancies arise.

    Ethiopian immigrants and the disabled will have an additional 40 jobs reserved for them each year.

    A team from the Civil Service Commission, Justice Ministry and Finance Ministry was given two months to develop other ways to promote affirmative action. One idea is to offer any ministry that hires an Arab employee a budget for another employee from a minority.

    The response from Arab and Jewish MKs, however, was dismissive. Yossi Beilin, head of the leftwing Meretz party, observed: “The Kadima government is cheating and belittling the Arab public when it releases empty decisions on the eve of the elections.”

    Beilin noted that in May 2000 as Justice Minister he had approved affirmative action legislation - the Law for Fair Representation for Arabs - for the civil service and government companies but that the measure had been ignored by the government of Ariel Sharon, most of whose ministers are now serving in the new Kadima government.

    In 2003 Sharon promised that by August 2004 there would be at least one Arab director on each of the boards of the 105 government companies, and that no company could appoint another Jew to its board until it had first appointed at least one Arab. At the time there were 38 Arabs holding such directorships; by November 2005, the number had risen to just 50 of the 551 directorships.

    Sharon made a further pledge in January 2004 to raise the representation of “non-Jews” in the civil service to 15 per cent by 2008 but in practice did nothing to change the percentages.

    In December the Deputy Commissioner of the Civil Service, Yaakov Berger, admitted that five years after the affirmative action legislation had been passed representation of Arabs had not altered. Of the 56,000 employees in government ministries, about 3 per cent were Arabs, he said - far short of their proportion of the population, at 19 per cent. Most Arabs work in lowly positions in the health and education ministries, where they handle services to Arab communities.

    The government’s new commitment to affirmative action for Arab workers is also thrown into question by a decision taken by the cabinet in November 2005, when it committed government companies to preferring settlers evacuated from Gaza during the disengagement in their hiring policy. Olmert called the settlers “a unique case”.

    Azmi Bishara of the National Democratic Assembly, who formulated the 2000 affirmative action law, said the government measure was designed “to pull the wool over Arab voters’ eyes”.

    “The government is not implementing the laws of the Knesset, nor is it implementing the decisions it made itself,’ said Ali Haider, co- director of Sikkuy, an organization working for equality between Jewish and Arab citizens.

    Beilin pointed out that the government’s decision was probably an attempt to forestall an appeal soon to be heard by the Supreme Court on the unequal representation of Arabs in the civil service.

    For more information about discrimination in employment to Israel’s civil service see Ilam briefing No. 18 from 2 December 2005: “Arab citizens still excluded from most civil service jobs.”

    I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel is a non-profit organization based in Nazareth. It was founded in 2000, by a group of Arab journalists and academics. As the only Arab Palestinian media organization in Israel, I’lam is deeply committed to the democratization of media policies, media practices, and the media landscape in Israel.