This week, Israel's Cabinet is scheduled to authorize a new plan that the Construction and Housing Ministry has developed for resolving the problems between the state and the Bedouin that have existed since 1949.
If it postpones discussion of the plan as it has several times during the past year, the envisioned resolution may be delayed for years.
In 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon concluded that Israel's dealings with the Negev Bedouin had to change. In his view, the state had to take into account the aspirations of the 75,000 tribespeople scattered throughout the desert in unrecognized villages. Otherwise, it would soon be impossible to settle the Bedouin permanently and resolve the land-ownership question in the Negev amicably.
This was a major departure from Sharon's previous belief that the state could push the Bedouin off the land by force. In the late 1970s, when agriculture minister, he confiscated the Bedouin's main source of livelihood — their flocks of black goats — expecting this to induce them to move into the seven towns being built for them.
More than 20 years later, Sharon saw that he'd been wrong. Half the Bedouin preferred to stay in the desert even under conditions of poverty and without basic services. To them, moving into towns populated by diverse tribal groups and suffering from the lowest level of social services in the country was untenable. To settle at all and move away from places to which they had become accustomed, these Bedouin demanded more homogeneous villages with better schools and institutions and, in some cases, to be able to engage in agriculture.
Sharon set out to address these demands directly from his office. He made then deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, responsible for developing a plan, the details of which were to be worked out by an Olmert appointee, a former district police chief, Yehuda Behar. Behar consulted with many Bedouin, officials and persons familiar with the Negev and Bedouin life, and devised a plan which, in the eyes of many Bedouin, finally held out promise for a better future.
Behar's plan provides for the construction of seven new, tribally homogeneous villages with modern services, the improvement of Rahat and the six recognized towns to make them more attractive, and the purchase of Bedouin lands at market price, rather than the undervalued prices offered in the past.
Bedouin readiness to settle and negotiate the sale of their land derives from their faith that the government intends to go through with its obligations. Broken promises and unfulfilled obligations over the years all but dissipated their goodwill.
Now, although the plan sets a five-year time limit for coming to agreement on the issues of settlement and land, it allows the government to foster Bedouin cooperation by quickly constructing the newly authorized villages and being flexible in negotiations over the purchase of Bedouin-claimed land.
Realizing that this needs money, the Sharon government, in 2005, earmarked 200 million shekels for Bedouin settlement and welfare. The Bedouin are sensing another round of disappointment, however, as government authorization of the plan has been repeatedly delayed over the past half year. This postponement also gives the bodies opposed to it a chance to try and block it. The Finance Ministry refuses to designate the funds earmarked by the Sharon government for use over successive years, limiting the latitude for negotiating with the Bedouin or contracting for the construction of the new villages to one-year periods of spending.
More insidious is the Israel Lands Authority, which has been lobbying to block the new plan altogether, so as to retain its own 50-year responsibility for trying to resolve the land-ownership issue. The authority rejects using any Negev lands for Bedouin settlement, other than in the city of Rahat and the six recognized towns. Continued ILA authority over the question of land-ownership must ultimately lead to a recourse to force, which will not be in Israel's interest.
Accordingly, if the Cabinet postpones its authorization of the new plan until after the incoming Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim takes up office and "learns the subject," more years will pass without resolving the land problem and the proper settlement of the Bedouin.
As Ariel Sharon feared, such a delay will leave an amicable resolution beyond our reach.
Clinton Bailey is a former adviser on Arab affairs in Israel's Ministry of Defense.