Israel’s government of change is navigating a serious challenge to its fragile coalition. Since the state’s founding, Israel has tried to settle its nomadic Bedouin minority in towns and cities. The Bedouin, most of whom live in the Negev, have resisted this push to abandon their traditional way of life. And while many Bedouin have settled in government-built towns in the Negev region, many still retain a semi-nomadic existence.
Israel often boasts with deserved pride that the Jewish state has made the desert bloom. Much of the remarkable reclamation of the land has been carried out in conjunction with Keren Kayemet Le’Yisrael, often called the Jewish National Fund, a quasi-governmental organization that oversees 13% of Israel’s land. (KKL-JNF is a different entity from the JNF that operates in the United States.)
It is against this background that riots broke out last week when KKL-JNF began planting trees on land settled by the Bedouin al-Atrash tribe. According to KKL-JNF, the move (with government support) was designed to incentivize new families to populate the area and to provide a boost to Israeli agriculture and revenue opportunities for families in the area. The Bedouin, however, saw the action as a land grab and part of a plan to expel them from land they claim as theirs.
In past Israeli governments the Bedouin population had only a modest voice and even less controlling influence. But in today’s razor-thin governance construct, things are different. And so, when Mansour Abbas, the leader of the coalition member Islamic Ra’am party, decided to exercise his outsized influence on behalf of the Bedouin, the government took note. Abbas declared that his four-seat faction would not vote with the government unless the tree planting was halted and formal negotiations with Bedouin leaders were launched. And although contrary views were expressed by many within and outside the coalition, that is essentially what the government decided to do. The tree planting was stopped, and discussions were commenced.
We are hopeful that a workable solution with the Bedouin population will be developed. And success in that effort could have an impact on another brewing issue which might test the coalition’s durability.
Numerous reports indicate that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is involved in the negotiation of a plea deal on his corruption charges that could involve his temporary or permanent withdrawal from politics. Should that occur, Netanyahu’s Likud party, now in the opposition, could come to life again, and could join with other right-leaning parties (including many in the current coalition government) to form a new government. That could be accomplished without the need for a new round of elections, and without the haredi parties.
Early this week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared that a Netanyahu deal would not jeopardize the current coalition. Others — even some within the coalition — disagree. We will see what happens. But, in the meantime, there is no question that a negotiated deal with the Bedouin, and the related deference to a minority coalition member, should go a long way in solidifying the interdependence of coalition members and their joint commitment to maintaining their governance goals.