How tree plantings almost toppled a coalition

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: The Likud managed to sow the seeds of rebellion in Bennett’s government.

 POLICE OFFICERS detain a Bedouin man who was protesting tree planting by KKL-JNF outside the village of al-Atrash in the Negev, Wednesday. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
POLICE OFFICERS detain a Bedouin man who was protesting tree planting by KKL-JNF outside the village of al-Atrash in the Negev, Wednesday.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The beginning of the end of then-prime minister Ehud Barak’s government came less than two months after it was formed, when he allowed the state-owned Israel Electric Company to send a 250-ton turbine to travel at a snail’s pace to a coastal power station on Shabbat.

United Torah Judaism carried out its threat to leave the coalition, which kept on unraveling until it fell the following year, after Barak returned from Camp David.

At the time, people questioned how such a trivial incident could have such a massive political impact. Barak’s Labor Party, which founded the state and ran as part of the One Israel bloc, never came back to power, and the Left has been politically marginalized ever since.

Fast-forward 23 years, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has a narrow coalition no less fragile. It would be understandable if his government fell over the revelation of secret negotiations with the Palestinians and concessions dividing Jerusalem, or if opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu drafted a high-profile defector from the coalition.

But would it make sense if it fell over planting trees?

KKL-JNF plants trees near the Gaza border (credit: Courtesy)KKL-JNF plants trees near the Gaza border (credit: Courtesy)

Monday is the Tu Bishvat holiday, when Israelis around the country will be planting saplings in what is normally the most innocent and simple act imaginable.

But this is the Middle East, where nothing is simple; and in politics, nothing is innocent.

When Ariel Sharon wanted to prove that his new Kadima Party was here to stay, he sent his candidates to lay down its roots and plant the “Kadima Forest” in the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council. It was the first political act of young Kadima candidate Ze’ev Elkin.

The planting of saplings by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) on state land in the Negev claimed by the Bedouin al-Atrash family that was decided upon by the Israel Lands Authority, currently under Elkin’s control, didn’t just take place this week, resulting in protests, demonstrations and arrests. It also happened last week, with no one noticing, not even Elkin.

Two years ago, Amir Peretz, as the minister in charge of the National Bedouin Authority, got the planting to stop, despite Netanyahu being prime minister.

Nevertheless, it was still a political forest fire waiting to happen.

Ra’am (United Arab List) leader Mansour Abbas asked Bennett early in the week to stop the planting and let the incident pass quietly. But the strange bond in the opposition between the Joint List and the Likud was not going to let that happen.

Netanyahu’s political adviser Haim “Iki” Cohen sent a message about the planting to the Likud faction’s WhatsApp group at 5:30 p.m. on Monday. Cohen heard about the controversial planting site from the head of the KKL workers committee, Israel Goldstein, who recently joined the Likud. Netanyahu also knew, from his time as prime minister, that this was a particularly sensitive area.

A delegation of MKs from the Likud faction drove two hours southward to the planting site the following morning, putting Ra’am under tremendous political pressure. Likud MK Ofir Akunis admitted the goal of the planting was to sow the seeds of discord between the Arabs and right-wing parties in the coalition a week after they fought over the controversial Electricity Law that passed in the Knesset.

Ra’am crossed the electoral threshold only due to votes from the Negev. But its only MK from the region, Sa’eed Al-Harumi, died under mysterious circumstances, leaving the party vulnerable to attacks from the Joint List.

That night, Abbas compared planting trees in the Negev to getting shot in the chest, in an extreme statement that sounded very un-Abbas-like.

New Hope and Yamina ministers and MKs also could not be seen as giving in on an issue as fundamental as control over the Land of Israel.

The sensitivity and the lack of control quickly developed the planting dispute into the coalition’s worst crisis since the government was formed in June. So where was Bennett?

BENNETT MADE no public statements about the tree incident the entire week. There were those who said he was still healing from the Electricity Law fight the week before, when he charged the opposition in the Knesset plenum and was seen as lowering himself by fighting backbenchers over minutiae.

One Bennett associate said he was genuinely too busy, due to serious issues like the coronavirus and the Iran talks in Vienna.

Another source close to Bennett said he was actually involved in every detail of the tree incident behind the scenes and made sure everyone would get what they wanted. Elkin would be able to say the tree planting continued as planned. Abbas would get the dialogue he wanted. And he would get to downplay the entire incident.

“He managed it under the radar without being in the public eye,” a source close to Bennett said. “He gave up the credit he would have received for fighting over such a consensus issue to get the calm his coalition needed.

Bennett’s associates also downplayed the price he paid: losses for the coalition on five bills in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday night. The gloating of Likud MKs Miri Regev and Galit Distal Atbaryan when they passed their bills was unsettling for Bennett, but he knows the bills won’t come close to passing into law, and the coalition MKs leaving the room took some of the luster off the Likud’s victories.

“We took such losses into consideration when we allowed the planting to continue in the morning,” a source close to Bennett said. “The votes were preliminary, not practical.”

The other damage might end up being longer lasting. Yamina faction chairman Nir Orbach, who had not recovered from his humiliation for voting against hooking up settlement outposts to the national electricity grid to which illegally built Arab homes will soon connect, could not handle another political slap in the face.

In Yamina’s faction meeting, coalition chairwoman Idit Silman asked him to swallow his pride for Ra’am again.

“The Joint List put a finger in Ra’am’s eye, so [the planting] is hard for them,” Silman told him in the closed-door meeting. “It’s not that much of a sacrifice for us.”

There are two camps in the Yamina faction. Silman, of the more moderate camp, does not care as much about helping settlements as Orbach and Yomtob Kalfon, who are in the more ideological camp led by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

“It’s getting harder for Nir to stay in the Knesset, so he has been trying to pair off votes,” a Yamina source said. “He feels we are giving away the most of any party in the coalition and Idit is not fighting for what he cares about.”

Bennett might end up having to pay off Orbach soon with the Settlement Ministry that he promised him, which would let him quit the Knesset via the Norwegian Law and cause less trouble.

Orbach and Ra’am boycotted Wednesday’s votes in the Knesset, and neither has agreed to come back if a compromise is not reached before the next votes in the plenum.

“I don’t want to bring down the government, and we have swallowed a lot, but this is intolerable,” Abbas said Wednesday night after he boycotted the plenum.

Marathon negotiations will take place over the weekend, in an effort to fix the problems before Tu Bishvat begins on Sunday night.

Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is involved in the talks, expressed confidence that they will succeed.

“Not every tactical move is a dramatic national problem between Jews and Arabs,” he said.

And Lapid knows that the coalition he formed has one advantage that Barak’s did not: a common enemy that keeps it united.

The so-called “anti-Bibi bill” that would enact term limits for prime ministers will come to a vote next Monday in the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee.

That anti-Bibi glue remains heavier than even a 250-ton turbine. •