RAHAT, Israel - Israel on Thursday suspended a contentious bill aimed at resettling nomadic Bedouin Arabs into government-recognized villages after a series of objections rendered the plan politically untenable.
The man behind the ambitious program, former cabinet minister Benny Begin, called the Bedouin in Israel's southern Negev desert the country's most discriminated minority and bemoaned that political forces had derailed a plan he said aimed to help the community.
"Right and left, Arabs and Jews joined forces - while exploiting the plight of many Bedouin - to heat things up for political gain," he said in a hastily arranged news conference. Begin said that given the current reality he was forced to recommend that the proposed bill be shelved, a suggestion immediately approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Liberal opponents said the plan would confiscate Bedouin land and affect their nomadic way of life while hard-liners thought it was too generous. Others said the Bedouin were not consulted and the plan, which called for uprooting thousands and relocating them into new towns, was being forced upon them.
"The government now has an opportunity to conduct real and honest dialogue with the Negev Bedouin community and its representatives," the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said after Thursday's announcement. "The Negev Bedouin seek a solution to the problem of the unrecognized villages, and a future in Israel as citizens with equal rights."
A pair of Bedouin representatives reached by telephone had no immediate comment.
The government insisted its moves were necessary to provide basic services that many Bedouins lack and would benefit their community while preserving their traditions. The government body dealing with the plan said it calls for the vast majority of Bedouin to live where they are. It said it is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in housing, health, public services, and education for the Bedouin in an effort to lift them out of poverty.
The proposed law had sought to resolve decades-old land claims by the Bedouin community to pave the way for a large-scale development plan in the southern desert area, one of the few remaining open spaces in this densely populated country.