The Place Where Netanyahu's Efforts to Form a Coalition Hit a Wall of Suspicion

The prime minister is trying to convince Israel's far right to join a coalition that will rely on cooperation with the Islamists. But practical issues surrounding the Bedouin communities in the Negev are complicating his political maneuvers

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Children in the Negev Bedouin village of Tirabin al-Sana, March 29, 2020.
Children in the Negev Bedouin village of Tirabin al-Sana, March 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Last month’s election saw two religious parties make significant inroads into the Knesset. One is the Religious Zionism alliance; headed by far-right religious-nationalist Bezalel Smotrich, it includes one member of the openly anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction, led by the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir. The other is the United Arab List, the party of Israel’s Islamic Movement, headed by MK Mansour Abbas, which broke off from the Arab-majority Joint List for a risky run by itself.

In the meantime, President Reuven Rivlin has given Benjamin Netanyahu a month to try to assemble a governing coalition, an act that will require him to marshal most every Knesset member who is willing to be cajoled into supporting him. Abbas, who is from the Galilee town of Maghar, declared in the months leading up to March 23 that Israel's Arab citizens were tired of being in perennial opposition and would be willing to cooperate with any government that was ready to meet the United Arab List’s demands.

The leaders of Religious Zionism have stated repeatedly, most recently last week, that they will not join a government that is dependent, even indirectly, on an Arab party. Netanyahu has assured them that he has no plans to invite Abbas into any cabinet he heads. But, for anyone to form a government, some laws of nature will have to be defied.

The wide chasm that divides these two highly conservative parties is not based on ethnic and religious animus alone. There are major policy disagreements between them as well, in particular with regard to the Negev, the southern Israeli outback that was suddenly thrust to center stage in the latest election.

Some 250,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, around 80,000 of them in one of 35 unrecognized villages or in lone outposts. Without recognition, these communities lack all basic physical infrastructure, and any construction done by residents is subject to demolition orders, often with no possibility for appeal. But the state is ambivalent about legalizing these towns, and the process is complicated by the fact that it cannot come to agreement with the Bedouin over the ownership of some 25,000 individual plots of land.

The stalemate has been dragging on for decades. For the state, the priority is to encourage Bedouin it says are squatting and move them into one of seven new “townships” it began building for them in the 1960s. For the Bedouin, and specifically for Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, the top priority today is regularization of the unrecognized towns and an end to the wave of demolitions. Nearly 75 percent of Negev Bedouin who voted last month cast their ballots for Abbas’ party, and for them, the problem of the unrecognized villages takes priority even over a comprehensive program to deal with the wave of violent crime plaguing Arab society.

Bezalel Smotrich and Religious Zionism also care a great deal about the Negev. Smotrich was the co-founder of the Regavim NGO in 2006, and directed it for some years. Regavim pegs itself as dedicated to advancing “responsible, legal, accountable and environmentally friendly use of Israel’s national lands and the return of the rule of law to all areas and aspects of the land and its preservation.” Although the mission statement does not say so overtly, the organization’s materials imply that the chief obstacle to that vision is the Arabs of Israel and the West Bank, along with the Israeli governments that have kowtowed to them.

A Bedouin casting his ballot in the Negev town of Rahat last month.Credit: Hazem Bader / AFP

Several video clips recently posted to Regavim’s website depict the Bedouin as wily negotiators who figured out that each time they say no to a government offer to solve the ownership problem, the government eventually comes back with an even sweeter offer. All they need to do is remain patient, as the father playing a Bedouin Arab tells his young son in the clip titled “Israel and the Negev 2021: Fairy Tale or Horror Story?” “The Jews came, they offered us more – we didn’t agree. Later, they came and offered us even more. We still didn’t agree.”

The two ascend a desert hill, and when they reach its crest, a beautiful Negev valley, partly green after winter rains, spreads out before them. Holding out his hand, the father promises the boy, “The day will come, my son, the day will come, and all of this will be yours.”

Thabet Abu Ras, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives Fund and an expert on Negev planning issues, notes that the Bedouin constitute about one-third of the population of the Negev, and their land claims cover about 3 percent of the land. “There’s enough room in the Negev for everyone,” he says.

Regavim, however, sees the Bedouin as a threat to Jewish sovereignty in the Negev. The clip on the website concludes with the message: “The state is losing governance in the Negev. Stop the takeover.”

Unrecognized villages

Meir Deutsch, Regavim’s chairman, said in an interview that the particular target of the clip is a government program that offers Bedouin living in unrecognized communities a free plot of land when they reach age 18 if they move into one of the seven recognized townships.

Deutsch says that “unrecognized village” itself is a euphemism: “It’s not distinct towns where those 80,000 are living. Look at the area on Google Earth. You’ll see 2,300 clusters of illegal structures that are spread out over a huge amount of land, over 750,000 dunams [185,330 acres]. That’s an area that’s bigger than the 10 largest cities in Israel, which together cover approximately 600,00 dunams.”

When the state started the “free land” policy, as Deutsch refers to it, in 2003, it was in fact limited in duration to three years, but nearly two decades later, the offer still stands. As a consequence, Deutsch says, “instead of encouraging Bedouin to move to a legal town, it’s discouraging them from doing so.”

Protesters at the unrecognized Bedouin village of Al-Araqib in the Negev, July 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Another Regavim clip, this one animated and portraying a young Bedouin named Abed, explains why. As long as he holds out, “Abed and his children, maybe even his grandchildren, will build more illegal structures for which the state will have to give them even more land and more cash. So, why move into a legal community? What do you take him for, a freier?” (Hebrew slang for “sucker”).

When I asked both Faiz Abu Sahiban, the mayor of Rahat, the largest of the legal townships (with as many as 80,000 residents), and Waleed Alhawashla, the manager of the United Arab List’s Knesset caucus, about the “free land” program, both said they didn’t know what I was referring to. But Elianne Kremer, a spokeswoman for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, noted that in theory, a Bedouin who agrees to sign off on land claims in the Negev and move to a regulated town is entitled to a plot of land on which to build. In reality, the offer is far from generous.

Abu Ras says that “there are two main problems with the government’s offer. For one, it’s proposing to urbanize the Bedouin against their will, when what they want is to maintain their tribal-based community. And in many cases, the plots being offered in the townships are already the subject of a land dispute” with another Bedouin tribe. Taking possession of such a lot could lead to additional legal wrangling, or worse, a tribal feud.

Kremer says that although these plots are located in established towns, often they are not even hooked up to basic infrastructure like water and electricity. Looking at the materials produced by Regavim, however, one easily gets the impression that the Negev Bedouin, having learned to game the system, are accumulating more and more land with each child they bring into the world.

Abu Sahiban, the Rahat mayor, says that his town’s problem is a lack of land, not unclaimed lots: “We have not been given lands to market to residents for nearly 13 years. [The state] has the time to negotiate, and in the meantime, our children grow up, they marry, and there is no solution on the horizon.”

Sometimes these new families have no choice but to build a temporary shack on the roof of an existing building, he explains – Rahat has an average of 15 square meters (161 square feet) per resident. In the nearby Jewish cities of Ofakim and Be’er Sheva, he says, “it’s 30 and 42, respectively. We don’t have high-rises. You may call Rahat a city, but it’s more like a sardine can.”

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas.Credit: Gil Eliahu

What both the United Arab List and Religious Zionism agree on is that the state isn’t doing its job on this issue by crafting clear and consistent policies, not to mention enforcing them. In addition to granting official status to the unrecognized villages, Abbas’ party believes it is no less important to implement master plans so that residents of all the Bedouin communities can buy plots, build homes that won’t be demolished because they lack permits, and enjoy basic infrastructure like electricity, water and sewerage. The United Arab List also wants to revoke the Kaminitz Law, which streamlines the entire process by which illegal construction can be destroyed – legislation that has been applied almost exclusively against Arab citizens.

But according to Religious Zionism’s platform, the problem is that the state is not tough enough. According to its preelection statement, Israel must “separate between the question of ownership claims and the regulation of settlement, and the return of sovereignty and governance in the Negev” on a practical level. “In parallel but separately, we need to return the state to the Negev,” it reads. “On the one hand, to regulate settlement within the borders of existing communities and on state lands, and on the other hand, to display zero tolerance to legal violations of any kind and to enforce the law with determination.”

And when Bedouin break the law, the party says, “We will close in on violators of the law from every direction with economic, criminal and administrative enforcement …. The state prosecutor will be instructed to seek maximum punishment, not plea bargains.”

Abu Ras of the Abraham Initiatives Fund believes that if Smotrich’s party is given authority regarding these Negev communities, “they will recognize maybe two or three of the villages, and the remainder he would like to uproot and move to townships. And in return for that, he will demand the legalization of dozens of outposts and settlements in the West Bank. If the UAL agrees to that, it will do terrible damage to the party.” And for that to even happen, Religious Zionism would have to agree to serve in a governing coalition dependent on the United Arab List, something Smotrich keeps insisting isn’t going to happen.

Radically conservative

Meanwhile, Abbas’ party has not endorsed any particular candidate for prime minister. While it would be unprecedented for an Arab party to lend its support to a right-wing party, especially one whose leader has for years fomented fear against Israel’s Arab citizens for electoral gain, Abbas had already said unambiguously that his party will go with whichever leader he is convinced can deliver on his electorate’s needs.

In his groundbreaking April 1 post-election speech, Abbas directly addressed Israel’s Jewish majority in Hebrew. His message was an ecumenical one designed to suggest that Jews and Arabs are partners with shared needs and goals. He described an “indefatigable striving for joint existence based on mutual respect and genuine equality.”

“What we have in common is greater than what divides us,” Abbas continued, quoting from the Koran: “Mankind! We have created you from one man and one woman, and have made you into various nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” Although we may disagree on particular points, he said, “we must give ourselves and our children the right and opportunity to come to know our neighbors …. And if we cannot find the way now to defeat ignorance and beat racism, we will bequeath to the next generation a complex and dangerous, and above everything impossible, reality.”

Religious Zionism's Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben-Gvir campaigning in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Michael Milshtein, who heads the Palestinian studies program at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Affairs, says that this speech made Abbas, “in my eyes, the Martin Luther King of Arab society. This is a man who said in the most progressive way, we want to be part of the political scene in Israel.”

But Milshtein says Abbas is no liberal democrat, and Jewish Israelis need to understand just how complex the matter is. The United Arab List is the political wing of Israel’s Islamic Movement, whose members are “super, super-traditional – in fact, radically conservative – on cultural questions.”

In large part, Abbas’ party broke with the rest of the Joint List over the latter’s support last year for a Knesset bill that would have outlawed the practice of “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people, a dubious method that has been employed in both religious Muslim and Jewish societies.

The issue is a matter of principle for the party; the Islamic Movement’s leader, Sheikh Hamed Abu Daabas, called homosexuality “a deviance” in a recent Friday sermon. Milshtein points out that Daabas says he can’t work with someone like Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz. His party may be represented in the new Knesset by two Arab members, but Horowitz is openly gay.

The traditional Muslim approach to the LGBTQ community, Milshtein notes, is similar to that of ultra-Orthodox Jewish society and its political parties. The same goes for Religious Zionism; Smotrich has in the past referred to himself as a “proud homophobe,” and the party counts the explicitly anti-LGBTQ Noam faction among its roster.

But Milshtein says the United Arab List is also intolerant of non-Muslim Arabs. He points to Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman of the Hadash faction, the Knesset’s only Christian member. “There has been wild incitement against her by the Islamic Movement within the social networks. They said that she encouraged Muslim women to remove their hijabs, and that she wants to shut down the sharia courts in Israel. That’s just fake news.”

But Abbas’ party, Milshtein says, doesn’t claim to represent all of Israel’s Arab citizens. “They say ‘we speak in the name of 80 percent. We represent the Muslims.’” Unlike the socialist-secular Hadash, which has always been dominant in the Joint List, the United Arab List makes no effort to attract Druze or Christian, not to mention Jewish voters.

And although Abbas talks about cooperating with Jewish parties politically, even the possibility of being in a governing coalition, their guiding tenet is, according to Milshtein, “We will be in favor of any cooperation that will be to the benefit of Muslims. If something is good for the Muslim public, and it’s not opposed to our principles, we have to go for it.”

Follow David B. Green on Twitter: @DavidBeeGreen

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