Israel's Bedouin Voters Consider What Was Once Unthinkable: Cooperating With Netanyahu

Israel’s Arab parties have historically never sat in coalition governments or worked with right-wing Jewish parties. But some Arab politicians are starting to call for a more pragmatic approach

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A resident of the Bedouin village walking past a demolished structure in Umm al-Hiran, in the Negev.
A resident of the Bedouin village walking past a demolished structure in Umm al-Hiran, in the Negev. Credit: Meged Gozani
David Green
David B. Green

Two ideas you hear a lot about in conversations with supporters of the United Arab List these days are the need for “pragmatism” among Israeli Arabs, along with their intention “not to be in anyone’s pocket.”

Recognizing this can help you understand why MK Mansour Abbas, who heads the Islamic party that constitutes the second largest faction of the Joint List of Arab parties, has been speculating very publicly recently about the possibility of political cooperation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – even though that could mean extending the life of the latter’s right-wing governing coalition.

According to Abbas, being in perpetual opposition has not benefited the country’s Arabs, and perhaps the time has come to work together with the parties in power, if that’s what it takes to address the community’s dire needs. Although Abbas himself is from the northern village of Maghar, the majority of the party’s voters are Bedouin, whose needs in southern Israel may be the direst of any population group in the country.

Some 250,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens live in the Negev, and as a group they suffer from rates of poverty, unemployment and hunger that are among Israel’s worst. Among them, the hardest off are the approximately 90,000 who live in “unrecognized” villages – isolated desert towns, some with thousands of residents, that the state deems illegal and as a consequence lack paved roads, electric lines or running water. (Many recognized villages too remain unconnected to such basic infrastructure.)

Additionally, all construction in the 35 unrecognized villages (to which can be added another 1,700 “building clusters,” some as small as a single residence on a hilltop) is illegal and, thus, subject to expedited demolition procedures.

Joint List lawmaker Mansour Abbas in the Knesset, September 2020.Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset

As Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher of Arab-Israeli society at both the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, told me recently, “The Arab public is interested in two things: It wants its representatives in the Knesset to work together; and it wants its burning issues to be taken care of – now. Right now.”

Talking with the enemy

According to Rudnitzky, who is co-author of “The Bedouin Population in the Negev,” those demands are doubly if not triply urgent among the Negev Bedouin – especially in light of the lockdowns imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which were particularly onerous for families that are often squeezed into a single room, without electricity, the internet and access to public transportation.

As an example, he refers to a clip posted on Facebook earlier this month by Channel 13 correspondent Almog Boker. In it, we see dozens of children from the unrecognized village of Al-Zarnuq, southeast of Be’er Sheva, wading waist-deep through water as they make their way between home and school. It looks like a river, but the expanse of water is actually flooding left behind by early winter rain. Al-Zarnuq is home to some 5,000 Bedouin.

And so, Abbas has been playing footsie with Netanyahu. The first real test of this unlikely political flirtation came on December 1, when the United Arab List’s four lawmakers absented themselves from the Knesset during the preliminary vote on a motion to dissolve parliament. That bill passed 61-54, but still needs to pass another couple of votes before the government falls.

Children going to school in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in 2019, Credit: Rimal Abu al-Kiyan

According to Abbas, the right wing is likely to come out of another election only strengthened – in particular the religious-Zionist Yamina party led by Naftali Bennett, which has been a special nemesis of the Bedouin. “The opportunity to move forward with the government plan to combat violence and crime in Arab municipalities will be lost,” Abbas told the Times of Israel earlier this month, referring to an issue in which he has a particular interest as head of the Knesset Special Committee on Eradicating Crime in Arab Society.

Abbas’ colleagues from other factions within the Joint List have been quick to chide him for breaking ranks to talk with the “enemy,” accusing him of risking the breakup of the Arab parliamentary alliance that has run collectively in three of the last four elections. What made Mansour Abbas, they and numerous commentators asked, think he could do business with Netanyahu and not emerge from the experience empty-handed and humiliated once the prime minister had extracted whatever benefit he required from the Arabs?

MK Aida Touma-Sliman, of the Joint List’s left-wing Hadash faction, tweeted last month: “I can understand that Netanyahu would want to break up the Joint List or splinter its power, because we threaten him, but for someone to come from our home and lend a hand to that is unforgivable.”

In truth, no one in the Joint List wants to see it break apart again. When its members bickered and ran as two separate lists in the April 2019 election, they saw their combined strength drop from 13 seats to 10; today, reconstituted as a single list, they have 15 seats. But the unity all crave comes at the price of each of the four factions having to subsume its individual political identity, not to mention the individual ambitions of their respective members.

While Hadash embraces a secular-progressive political agenda, and the United Arab List represents the traditional religious values one might expect of an Islamic party, Balad is a nationalist party that would like to see the country’s Palestinian minority achieve autonomy. The fourth faction, Ta’al, led by MK Ahmad Tibi, is also secular and nationalist, but doesn’t share Balad’s separatist tendencies.

Joint List lawmaker Ayman Odeh at a protest calling for a more equitable split of resources to help combat the coronavirus, July 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

Polling of the Arab community suggests that the public cares less about ideological purity than it does about the Joint List remaining united and taking an active part in political wheeling and dealing on its behalf. At the same time, leaders of the Joint List should take notice of a recent survey of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Moshe Dayan Center, which found that nearly 65 percent of the Arab public supports the idea of the creation of a new Arab-Jewish party.

Draconian policies

For the Negev Bedouin, one piece of good news emerging from the last election was that responsibility for the Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev would be transferred to the ministry headed by Amir Peretz. The Labor Party chairman, himself a resident of the Negev, is openly sympathetic to the Bedouin, and even before he was sworn into his position at the Economy and Industry Ministry, had held personal meetings with a number of Bedouin leaders. Among the positive developments heralded by Peretz was his signaling his intention to pursue government recognition of three unrecognized villages: Rahma, Abdih and Khasim Zannih.

But as Council of Unrecognized Villages Chairman Attia Alasam told Haaretz in a phone interview, those three villages “already were recognized by the planning committee of the Development and Settlement Authority – they got that recognition before the last election. And that wasn’t the first time that they talked about recognition of these villages. One of them, for example, received recognition five years ago.” He adds that the process had been frozen by the previous minister in charge of the authority, Uri Ariel.

Even with the reassignment of the Authority, and the personal sympathy of the minister responsible for Bedouin and their plight, many government authorities that oversee Bedouin affairs remain under the supervision of other ministries, and continue with the draconian enforcement policies that have for years characterized life for the country’s poorest community.

The Bedouin village of Tirabin al-Sana in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Despite a commitment from the Justice Ministry at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis to implement a moratorium on house demolitions and other punitive actions while the lockdown was in effect, enforcement has proceeded apace. According to Elianne Kremer of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, over the past nine months her organization has documented “over 85 incidents in which enforcement authorities distributed demolition warrants, executed demolitions, plowed under fields, interrogated livestock farmers and issued fines to herders.” The numbers, she adds, are unofficial and probably “much smaller than the actual figures.”

Alasam is an obvious destination if you want to know how the Bedouin feel about Mansour Abbas’ initiative. Alasam is a democratically elected official who is affiliated with the Islamic Movement, but is quick to stress that in his job, he works “for everybody.” And while he says “there are those who, when they look at the Joint List, see accomplishments, there are those of us – for example, those in the Negev who are having their homes demolished and their fields plowed under – who don’t see so many accomplishments.”

He doesn’t say that with anger, but out of a hard-earned understanding that decisions that may seem ideological in basis also are driven by politics.

“All of our problems are connected to the government – to the parties that are in power, in the coalition,” Alasam says. “All we ever do is talk with the opposition, who will not bring us anything,” even if they are in power. “So why should we be in the pocket of the opposition?” he asks.

Not that Alasam has any illusions about Netanyahu and his present and former coalition partners. “It’s true that the right passes racist laws and makes racist statements. But at the end of the day, it’s the people who are in power who [are in the position] to give us our rights … and we think we will be in a better position to attain them if there’s a dialogue between the Arab minority and the coalition.”

Joint List MK Ayman Odeh and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, left, and Kahol Lavan MK Avi Nissenkorn and MK Mansour Abbas in the Knesset in May and December 2020. Credit: Adina Wallman, Knesset Spokesperson's Unit/ Alex Kolomoisky

‘Consider all the options’

Waleed Alhawashla manages the United Arab List faction in the Knesset. He is naturally supportive of the moves made by his party’s senior politician, but says: “I want to make this clear: United Arab List doesn’t support Bibi Netanyahu, and it doesn’t support Benjamin Gantz. United Arab List abstains.

“We want achievements for the Arab public,” Alhawashla continues. “Whoever can accomplish things for Arab society, whoever can help the Arabs – we want to consider all the options.”

Technically that may be so, but his faction, by abstaining in the dissolution vote, was publicly straying from the policy of the Arab alliance to which it is committed. As far as Alhawashla is concerned, however, it’s the United Arab List’s sister parties in the Joint List that need to “come back to the people, to the line that defined us. If they avoid advancing laws that are opposed to our tradition in Arab society, I don’t think there will be a problem,” he says.

Alhawashla is referring to one of the seemingly minor issues that has caused tension within the Joint List over the past year: LGBTQ rights. Last summer, three members of the List, all from the Hadash faction, voted to support a bill that would sanction psychologists practicing so-called conversion therapy, intended to alter the sexual orientation of LGBTQ individuals. The other three factions all abstained from the vote, which passed its first reading.

Waleed Alhawashla, who manages the United Arab List faction in the Knesset.Credit: Waleed Alhawashla

That vote followed an earlier controversy regarding the Nazareth-based Al-Arz Tahini manufacturer, whose owners announced their intention to fund a hotline for Arab LGBTQ youth – a move that led to a boycott of the brand by a large swath of the Arab population. Hadash leader Ayman Odeh, though not directly expressing support for Al Arz, criticized the boycott as hypocritical, since, he argued, it ignored “Israeli companies that are proud supporters of the settlements and the army.”

Odeh has gained a lot of admirers among progressive Jews for his liberal politics, but, suggests Rudnitzky, much of the Arab public is less enamored by what he calls Odeh’s “effort to position the Joint List as the ‘new left.’”

Unlikely parallel

Rudnitzky thinks a parallel can be drawn between the United Arab List and the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, whose social and educational services have drawn it a loyal electorate. Through the Islamic Movement, for example, the United Arab List offers a safety net of sorts to needy parts of Arab society. Earlier this year, Waleed Alhawashla organized the Islamic Movement’s emergency relief effort to supply food, health care and educational materials to the Negev community during the first coronavirus lockdown.

MK Said al-Harumi is the United Arab List’s sole representative from the Negev and sees himself as the Bedouin population’s envoy to the Joint List. It has been reported that he personally is opposed to Abbas’ contacts with Netanyahu. When we spoke, however, shortly before the first Knesset vote on dissolution, he was circumspect –perhaps out of a belief in the need to project party unity, but also because he wanted to stress the desperate situation in the south.

Said al-Harumi at his office in the Knesset, November 2020.Credit: David B. Green

A dignified man who grew up in the new Bedouin township of Segev Shalom, and who was active in advancing his community’s rights long before he joined the Knesset three years ago, Harumi says his constituents are “just trying to survive from day to day. It’s a battle for existence, especially during the past year [with the added challenged of the coronavirus]. House demolitions, forced evictions, the minimal level of basic services – of water, health services…” his voice fades out.

According to Harumi, the lack of political stability, which would only be magnified by the fall of the current government, means that much of the policy in the Negev is decided by civil servants, not the ministers they work under. In some contexts, government by “technocrats” can be a remedy for political instability, but in this case, says Harumi, “the running of the state is by a hidden dictatorship” – officials who were appointed during the 20th Knesset, which finished nearly two years ago. “They’re the ones who are running things, and they’re carrying out their own political agenda,” which he alleges is that of the people who appointed them – including Ariel, who isn’t even a lawmaker anymore.

Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, tries to explain the approach of the Islamic Movement and its party to Netanyahu. “The Arabs, in general, and the Joint List – including the Islamic Movement – feel that Netanyahu is not good for the Arabs, and that he has incited against them. But the Bedouin are open to ‘pragmatism,’ and want to do business with the right and the left if it can solve the problems of the Negev. It’s all connected to the problems in the Negev,” he sums up.

Follow David B. Green on Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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