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Israel’s Bedouins: Another Reasonable Plan Fails to Overcome a Volatile Political Atmosphere

by Shmuel Rosner

December 10, 2013 | 8:02 am

Bedouins take part in a protest in Beersheba
Photo by Reuters

Israel's seven-billion-NIS ($2 billion) plan to advance the lives of the Bedouin community in the Negev desert was the topic of an article I wrote a week ago for The New York Times. This plan is currently being debated at a Knesset committee, prior to the expected final parliament vote. It is fiercely opposed by right-wing Jewish leaders – who view it as the state's capitulation before unlawful expansionism - and left-wing Jewish and Arab leaders – who consider it a violation of human rights. Both groups of opponents look at the plan and see a proposal that is far from being able to grant them all their wishes - the reason for which so many decent and reasonable compromise plans fail in the highly volatile political atmosphere of the Middle East.

As my article clearly states, I think the plan is painful yet reasonable.

It is in the interest of both the Bedouins and the Israeli government to see this plan implemented. It provides both camps with a rare opportunity to achieve much in a single stroke: to settle the dispute over land ownership in the Negev once and for all while bringing much-needed help to one of the country’s most disfavored groups.

Yet the chances that the plan will actually pass are decreasing by the day. The naysayers of both camps will yet again achieve what they want: maintaining a volatile status quo in the hope of achieving more in the future. The refusal of Bedouin leaders, supported by ignorant and at times malicious do-gooders, to accept the plan has provided the pretext for Jewish right-wing opponents who want to shelve the plan.

And along the way, the discussion was accompanied by all the features that have become a custom in such occasions.

Some American Jews (and rabbis!) have called on Israel to withdraw its Bedouin plan. "It is precisely because of our deep commitment to the State of Israel and the prophetic values of liberty and justice on which it was founded, that we, as rabbis, are so distressed by the potential for the use of force to resettle Bedouin and destroy their villages", said Rabbi S. Ayelet Cohen, vice chair of T’ruah, in a press release. I don't remember any protest from Rabbi Cohen when Jewish settlers in Gaza were forcibly (and rightly) evacuated from "their villages". But this would hardly be the first time in which an American rabbi puzzles me by advocating for something she knows little about. 

The usual mix of malicious rhetoric was used by human rights movements: ethnic cleansing, apartheid, crimes, racism. When Israel doesn't treat Arabs as equal citizens it is condemned, and when it does – when it wants to both invest in their advancement and regulate their housing conditions as it does with all citizens – it is also condemned.

A New York Times report infuriated the defenders of Israel, for reasons unclear (it did make an honest numerical mistake). The report says that "Proponents of the project say that no state can abide people’s building where and what they wish without approval, and that it promises the Bedouins, by far Israel's poorest sector, clinics, jobs, education and infrastructure that they sorely lack. Opponents call it insidious racism, ethnic cleansing or even apartheid; complain that the Bedouins were not consulted enough in the plan's construction; and accuse Israel of a land grab that ignores their culture and traditions". Some critics found the reporter's (Jody Rudoren) contention that "The plight of the Bedouins has in many circles become a proxy for the broader Arab-Israeli conflict" to be an "anti-Israel screed". I think she's right on the money: it has become in many circles a proxy for the conflict – and that's exactly why the chances for passing this plan are not great.

Try to have a cool-headed discussion about such a matter. Try to solve a problem of domestic nature in which Arab citizens are involved. Impossible. Frustratingly impossible. Thinking about the "broader conflict" one should wonder: would it be easier to deal with the Bedouin problem if an Israeli-Palestinian accord is finalized and signed - or would the Bedouin problem be an excuse for continuing the battle against Israel even after such a deal is reached?

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