Cisco Systems Inc.'s CEO and Chairman John Chambers on Wednesday announced an ambitious effort to help create 12,000 high-tech jobs in Israel's distressed Arab sector over the next four years.

Chambers said the initiative represents a significant expansion of "Ma'antech," a year-old project launched by major high-tech companies and backed by the Israeli president that aims to reduce gaps between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

"We have an opportunity to show the rest of the world what we can do together with a government that really gets it and with citizens who really get it," Chambers said. "If we can move to 12,000 (new employees) within four years, it would be an indication of what's possible."

Arabs make up roughly one-fifth of Israel's 8 million citizens. While they enjoy full citizenship rights, they are generally poorer, less educated and frequently suffer discrimination in the housing and job markets.

Israel is a global technology powerhouse, and the local high-tech sector is a major growth engine for the local economy. High-tech firms are among the highest-paying and most respected places to work.

When Ma'antech was launched in February 2011, less than a half a percent of employees in Israeli technology companies were Arab.

Since then, more than 22 companies have joined the project, bringing 270 qualified Arab-Israelis into their ranks. Cisco is the program's main funder, but other participants include Google Inc., Intel Corp., IBM Corp. and Check Point Software Technologies Ltd.

Chambers made his announcement at a conference sponsored by Israel's president, Shimon Peres.

Appearing with the Cisco CEO, Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate, said the corporate world is key to promoting coexistence and fighting racism.

"No government or policy could do it. You need the companies," Peres said, adding that "this is the way to pave to peace."

Several new companies joined Ma'antech today, including OnTarget Communications, Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq and Cadence Design Systems Inc.