Benjamin Netanyahu planting a tree is the most positive image the prime minister could aspire to. In this photograph by Dror Artzi taken at the Jewish National Fund’s Tu Bishvat ceremony in Be’er Sheva River Park, the veins stand out on Netanyahu’s forehead as he clutches a new hoe. His shoes are covered with sand he is raking.
Maybe it’s the pleasant smile of JNF cochair Eli Aflalo, breathing in the cold air that always seems to surround Netanyahu, that adds a little warmth to this photo. Maybe it’s the air of camaraderie in which Be’er Sheva mayor Rubik Danilovich, JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler (in the red tie) and minister Gilad Erdan, at left, in their ad-hoc skullcaps and black shoes, are being careful not to slip into the small depression being dug for the sapling; maybe it’s the children looking on with a focus that cannot be faked; or maybe it’s Omer council head Pini Badash, in his farmer’s sandals, carefully holding the young sapling like a newborn. But in this unusual photo that refrains from glorifying him, Netanyahu − who usually appears to have been pasted into his own photographs − looks accessible, close, involved.
And why shouldn’t he be involved? How nice it is to plant trees in Be’er Sheva River Park and listen to the remarks of the JNF chairman, who said that the cleanup of the area, which was filled with garbage, has led to a rise in real-estate values. He promised that the JNF would continue to retroactively authorize lands for communities that had already been set up, and predicted that when a “critical mass” of inhabitants was created, quality of life would automatically improve and there would be education, medicine, employment and culture. “And isn’t this exactly the social justice that everyone is seeking?” he asked.
But in the Negev, there is already a “critical mass.” There are 192,000 people, a third of the region’s population, who are citizens. Netanyahu the planter is also their prime minister. And these people, natives of the Negev, were there even before the JNF was founded.
On that same festive day when Netanyahu was planting a tree in the rehabilitated park, Aisha and Salma Abu Keif from Umm Batin, the ancient village to the east, could see the mixture of waste known as Nahal Hebron. It is not far from their tiny garden opposite the lone day-care center they started, drawing on tremendous inner strength, and with the encouragement of AJEEC − the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation. Perhaps Netanyahu the planter will also visit there to hear the children singing.
The bill for regulation of Bedouin settlement in the Negev (the continuation of the Prawer Plan that was approved in September) seeks to “concentrate” these people − citizens who have been on their lands for centuries − on less than 1 percent of the area of the Negev and on one-tenth of the lands they have proven they have inhabited. At the same time, “lone farms” are receiving retroactive approval, as though the State of Israel does not belong to all its citizens, but only to those with an ethnic preference.
This sympathetic photograph of Netanyahu, who looks so down-to-earth and so approachable, and who is surrounded by people in suits (when the opposite is normally the case) is a part of all that. Because the electricity poles visible in the distance and the car say that it’s not all about planting.
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