Druze Leadership Divided Over Netanyahu's 'Special Status' Proposal

The debate has widened to include issues within the community relating to leadership, political power and women’s rights ■ 'It is impossible to condition equality on military service,' says Druze lawmaker Akram Hasoon

Benjamin Netanyahu and the Druze representatives, August 1, 2018.

Druze leaders in Israel are divided over the plan proposed by the Prime Minister’s Office Wednesday to anchor in law the special status of the country’s Druze and Circassian communities, including benefits for service members and veterans.

The debate has widened to include issues within the community relating to leadership, political power and women’s rights.

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A meeting Wednesday of Druze community leaders in Kafr Yasif ended after several hours without a final statement. It was agreed that negotiations with representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office would continue.

The Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People that was passed in July prompted protest from the Druze community, including the first challenge to the legislation in the High Court of Justice and the resignation of a small number of Druze army officers.

The responses prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint a team of government officials and Druze political, religious and communal leaders to draft a plan aimed at guaranteeing the minority’s status within Israel.

Participants in Wednesday’s meeting in Kafr Yasif and other Druze figures agreed on the need for the planned demonstration Saturday evening at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

Druze MK Akram Hasoon (Kulanu) told Haaretz that the rally will also be a test Israeli unity. “We want to see everyone in the square, which actually strengthens our position in the negotiations. From our standpoint, there is a plan over which there are reservations and there are also question marks over the extent to which this plan can meet the approval of the High Court of Justice, the extent to which Attorney General [Avichai Mendelblit] can commit to defending it in court if and when petitions [challenging it] are filed.”

Hasoon said the Prime Minister’s Office’s plan had positive aspects but the main problem is that it does not call for equality for all Israelis.

Military service is mandatory for young Druze men, unlike other Arabic-speaking communities in Israel.

Hasoon acknowledged that the plan includes benefits for veterans. “But it is impossible to condition equality on military service and therefore from my standpoint, I am not withdrawing my High Court petition and am also in favor of demonstrating in a big way Saturday evening.”

Hurfeish Mayor Mufid Marie, who is also chairman of the forum of Druze and Circassian local authorities and one of the organizers of Saturday’s event, said the rally should not be canceled, but he insisted on calling it a support rally and not a demonstration, saying that if it becomes a political demonstration against someone, it should be canceled.

Marie called the proposal from the Prime Minister’s Office “a precedent-setting plan that we need to take, process with professional people who understand legal issues and arrive at a situation in which there is a basic law that defines the Druze and Circassian communities in a special manner.”

The community’s demand, he said, is to highlight the role of those who have “linked their fate with the State of Israel without regard to religion, race and gender,” and if it is impossible to amend the current nation-state law to include such a provision, a new basic law should be passed on the subject.

Marie’s predecessor as mayor of Hurfeish and as the chairman of the forum, Malek Bader, rejects the plan from the Prime Minister’s Office entirely, saying it is worse than the nation-state law itself. The plan, he said, perpetuates separate treatment of Israeli communities and places the Jews on top, followed by Druze and Circassians and then Arabs in general.

“Soon maybe they will propose a plan for Bedouin and maybe Ethiopians, so it’s not serious,” he said, adding that the negotiating team needs to focus on the nation-state law itself and to bring about its repeal or amendment rather than looking for one way or another to bypass the law, “which only proves how discriminatory the law is.”

Bader also didn’t spare criticism of the Druze community’s negotiating team, which is headed by Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, the Israeli Druze community’s spiritual leader.

“I respect Sheikh Tarif as a spiritual leader, but he is not sufficiently assertive and firm when it comes to negotiations on status and equality,” Bader said.

Bader questioned the involvement of Druze Knesset members in the process, saying those from parties in the ruling coalition could have spoken out at the beginning to scuttle the nation-state law. The appropriate elected representatives in the negotiations would be local elected officials, he said.

Eman Safadi, a Druze journalist, told Haaretz that the plan is designed to make commitments that have been promised in the past and haven’t been delivered on, including expansion of village master plans.

“They’re not doing us a favor and it doesn’t resolve the issue of the lack of equality. Village development, investment in culture and education, assistance to soldiers concluding their army service and affirmative action are things that exist today but some of them are only on paper. Some were raised back in 2011 and Netanyahu promised at that time to deliver on them,” Safadi said.

The plan, she said, is unacceptable to portions of the Druze community, particularly younger people. “Netanyahu has managed through this agreement to create an even large split in the community between religious people, army people and young people,” she said.

“Educated and enlightened women strongly oppose it,” she said, adding that one can see it on social media and that she has also received phone calls about it. From the women’s standpoint, it’s like an aspirin masking the pain and a deception and they are calling on support for Saturday’s demonstration and are urging Knesset member Hasoon not to withdrawn his high court petition, she said.

The proposed plan excludes Israeli citizens who do not serve in the army, treating them as guests, she asserted.

“The battle is all of ours so we are calling for the [nation-state] bill to be repealed.” The fact that the proposed revised version of the nation-state law adds privileges for those who have served in the army shows that it is based on inequality and should be struck down by the high court.

“Today it’s Arabs. In another few years, it will be us [Druze]. The extremist nationalistic discourse is only intensifying,” Safadi said.