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Visiting Bedouin voters, Netanyahu is welcomed — and hit with sharp criticism

‘I vote for Likud,’ sheikh says as PM claps, before adding: ‘Many workers under your authority have made our lives miserable’; premier promises to personally handle Bedouin issues

Prime Ministher Benjamin Netanyahu pours coffee for Bedouin leaders in southern Israel during a visit with members of the community, March 7, 2021. (video screenshot)
Prime Ministher Benjamin Netanyahu pours coffee for Bedouin leaders in southern Israel during a visit with members of the community, March 7, 2021. (video screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Sunday with voters from the Bedouin community in several locations in southern Israel, and was met with some ambivalence.

In a video from an event near the town of Rahat, Sheikh Gideon Abu Sabit was seen greeting Netanyahu, saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, I vote for Likud,” to claps from the premier and others around him. But he quickly added: “Many workers under your authority have made our lives miserable.”

He added: “We know that if the state is in good condition so are we. I hope you take Bedouin matters into your own hands — we are not the enemies of the state.” He emphasized the strong connection the Bedouin community has to Israel.

During the meeting with Netanyahu, Abu Sabit bemoaned the government’s demolition of Bedouin homes and confiscation of lands worked on by Bedouin community members. The government’s position is that the homes torn down were illegally constructed, and that lands the state has seized were illegally taken over by some in the communities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Sheikh Gideon Abu Sabit (right), during Netanyahu’s visit with members of the Bedouin community, near Rahat, March 7, 2021. (screen capture: Kan)

While the IDF gives most Arab Israelis an automatic waiver from the national draft, and the majority do not voluntarily enlist, many members of the Bedouin community do serve in the military. Thus, along with the Druze community, the Bedouin community is often seen as having stronger ties to the Jewish community, as it participates in a key part of the Israeli national ethos.

Netanyahu said during his visit: “I am going to transfer the handling of all Bedouin population [issues] to the Prime Minister’s Office – and will take care of it personally.” In addition, he promised a transfer of NIS 1.5 billion to the Arab sector, for the purposes of civilians’ security.

The prime minister said the government has already earmarked NIS 150 million ($45 million) to increase law enforcement in Arab communities. He asserted that recent days have seen several criminal cases in Rahat quickly solved, and that there has been “tremendous progress in eliminating crime and violence in Israel generally, and in the Arab community in particular.”

Netanyahu also took part in a photo op with Bedouin community leaders in a tent, where he was filmed pouring coffee to the assembled dignitaries.

Netanyahu’s statement said he made a campaign stop in Rahat with Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. But Rahat Mayor Talal Alkernawi issued his own statement, claiming the premier had made no such visit and that he actually had stopped at a Bedouin village outside the town.

Recent months have seen protests criticizing the government for its supposed lack of action in regards to violent crime among Israel’s Arab population. Organized crime is largely seen as the engine of the spread of violence in Arab cities and towns. Many Arab Israelis blame the police, whom they say has failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations.

Most Arab Israelis have vigorously opposed Netanyahu, saying that he has incited racism against them. They point to laws such as the 2018 nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and demoted the status of Arabic, and the 2017 Kamenitz law, which deliberately targeted illegal Arab construction.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has also previously warned about what they have deemed to be Arab voter fraud, including seeking to install cameras in voting centers. Arab Israelis widely decried the attempt as an attempt at voter intimidation.

But Netanyahu in this election cycle has sought to embrace the Arab public, apparently believing there are potential Likud votes to be won there.

In opinion polls, Arab Israelis have consistently pointed to solving the violence in Arab communities as their highest priority, with the murder rate among Israeli Arabs having gone up nearly 50 percent in four years. Netanyahu has pledged to take care of the problem.

In late 2020, MK Mansour Abbas, leader of the religious Muslim Ra’am party, broke from the Arab Joint List’s standard anti-Netanyahu line, saying he was willing to cooperate with the prime minister if it served the interests of Abbas’s constituents.

Abbas’s statements created controversy in the Joint List, and Ra’am eventually splintered away from the alliance for an independent run in the current elections. Netanyahu seemingly hopes that Abbas is a symbol of a wider willingness among some in the Arab public to deal with the prime minister, and that pursuing the Arab vote can give him the edge he needs to achieve the support of a Knesset majority after the March 23 vote.

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