JNF Fiasco Shows Israel's Coalition Is Walking on Much Thinner Ice Than Netanyahu Did

Former PM Netanyahu's Likud party took advantage of the Negev's importance to Islamist leader Mansour Abbas, destabilizing an imbalanced coalition

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Likud lawmakers plant trees in the Negev as local Bedouin protest the Jewish National Fund's work in the area, on Wednesday.
Likud lawmakers plant trees in the Negev as local Bedouin protest the Jewish National Fund's work in the area, on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Almost every week in the 28 weeks that have passed since its establishment, the Bennett-Lapid government is discovering that what Netanyahu could have easily accomplished, without interruption, “crisis” or “uproar,” presents a clear and present danger to this government's very existence.

This week, an obscure incident such as the Jewish National Fund planting trees in the Negev turned into a strategic threat, and not just to the government, but to other potential targets. While in 2020 under Netanyahu, the JNF was halted in its tracks at the request of then-Economy Minister Amir Peretz, without Likud lawmakers raising any hue, cry or hubbub. As it was with the Electricity Law, the Citizenship Law and more.

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This fragile government is walking on a thin wire over troubled water, and must ask itself each morning whether it is about to enter a minefield. Whether the planting of a few trees, where Bedouin herd their sheep and raise vegetables, is worth rocking the coalition that is dependent on the United Arab List.

Senior government figures blame one man: Ze’ev Elkin, the construction and housing minister from New Hope. Elkin, they say, could have stopped it in time. But he ordered the JNF to carry on. Why? Because he always has his left foot in this government, and his right in the next. He’s been in politics since 2006, and never sat in the opposition for a single day. He skipped from Likud to Kadima, back from Kadima to Likud and eventually to New Hope. As long as he remains a minister.

Sources close to Elkin dismiss these claims. The Israel Land Authority is not subject to the minister, they say. He learned of the planting after the fact from the director of the authority once work on the site was underway, concurrent with enraged Whatsapp messages from Mansour Abbas. He told the director to act according to his judgment.

Zeev Elkin talks with Mansour Abbas in the Knesset plenum, in November.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Likud identified the incendiary potential. The MKs went down south and took pictures holding shovels, planting during the shmita; a sabbatical year to let the land lie fallow every seven years. And they continued singing as though they were redeemers of the land. The UAL protested across from them, as it slid from a marginal, local episode to a bitter, bigoted, ugly political confrontation. A few trees, the government sources add, are no threat to the identity of a proud, strong, confident Jewish state.

The right wing of the government understands Abbas’ plight. Once the planting began, the Joint List swooped down on him and tore him to shreds. Contrary to his customary forbearance and cool, he succumbed to pressure, ordered a legislative boycott and released extreme statements never heard from him before.

The Negev is the apple of his eye. The Negev carried him across the electoral threshold. “They made it an event because the Joint List made it an event,” says a minister on the right. “There’s nothing you can do. We have public opinion [to consider] too, not just our partners from the UAL.”

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