Negev economy gets boost

The most recent report by the OECD, the Paris-based watchdog of developed nations, generally gives the Israeli economy a clean bill of health. It noted that Israel passed through the 2008-09 financial crisis "in reasonable shape" but warned that geopolitical tensions, in the shape of the "Arab Tempest" and "tent protests" have added a new dimension to the socio-economic agenda.

In particular the OECD notes that shortfalls in education and social policies contribute to "Israel's high poverty rate especially among Arab-Israelis and ultra-orthodox Jews."

The shortcomings of Israel's Charedi community, from welfare dependency to low participation in the armed forces and workforce skills, are well understood among British Jewry and beyond.

Less understood are the economic problems of Israel's Arab minorities and the potential loss to output, and the threat to social cohesion posed by under- development. Encouragingly there is internal and external awareness of the socio-economic gap and steps are being taken to address the issues.

Even conservative politicians, like the free-market Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, recognise the problems. There may be no Arab representation on the 31-person council but it has approved a massive road-building programme designed to raise standards in East Jerusalem.

The British government is also seeking to help Arab incomes. Several UK-based Jewish charities including the Pears, Rayne and Samuel Sebba foundations are playing a role in supporting development projects.

The Netanyahu government is focussing on the poorest segment of Israeli society - the Bedouin in the Negev. Recent data shows that 71.5 per cent of Bedouin households are under the poverty line compared with 16.2 per cent among the Jewish population.

Minister Benny Begin is addressing the issue with a NIS2.5 billion five-year plan to regularise "unrecognised" towns in the Negev. The region will also benefit from proposed movement of major army bases from the North the region bringing inward investment of up to NIS50 billion over ten years and thousands of jobs. The transformation is going to be long and complex with huge fights over land rights and compensation.

But after years of neglect a start is being made and the pay-off can be seen in productive "recognised" towns such as Hura, just south of Be'er Sheva.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:54am, March 1 2012