Behind the Scenes: How Netanyahu's 'Apartheid' Trap Torpedoed Talks With Druze Leaders

When the prime minister saw Druze leaders insisting that the nation-state law be changed, he opted for a controlled explosion that would mark the group public enemy number one

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Druze leaders over the nation-state law.
Kobi Gideon

There were two possible scenarios for the outcome of the meeting Thursday night between government officials and Druze leaders protesting the nation-state law: a celebratory handshake over a package of benefits for the Druze and a statement that the protest rally slated for Saturday night had been canceled, or a controlled explosion in talks that would mark this group public enemy number one.

From Haaretz’s conversations with participants and observers on both sides of the meeting, the picture is clear: When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the Druze leaders insisting that the nation-state law be changed, he preferred the second option.

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3:30 P.M.: Confused messages

The invitation to the meeting, which began at 7:30 P.M., came rather abruptly, but not unusually so, compared to the previous meetings. Three former army officers leading the protest – Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal Assad, Col. (res.) Anwar Saeb and Lt. Col. (res.) Sufyan Marih – received a message from the Druze spiritual leader, Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, that they had been invited with him to a meeting in the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu’s people had intended to invite the “community’s notables” only – a group they had held talks with in the past and believed were inclined to accept the deal Netanyahu was offering. But the Druze decided that the meeting needed broader representation. Some Druze mayors, for example, Mufid Marie of Hurfeish, who is also chairman of the forum of Druze local councils, were invited only at around 4:15 P.M. by MK Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel.
Kobi Gideon

The messages were confused. At some point it was said that the meeting would be canceled, but in the end it was decided to hold it at the government offices in Tel Aviv instead of Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem.

A stormy debate began among the Druze mayors. Some thought that the meeting was intended to pressure them into canceling Saturday night’s rally, and that they didn’t have enough time to prepare for the meeting properly. In the end it was decided that in addition to Marie, only two mayors would be present, Wahib Habish of Yarka and Biyan Kabalan of Beit Jann. Others gave in contentiously, among them Daliat al-Carmel Mayor Rafiq Halabi.

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In addition to Amar, the prime minister’s team consisted of the nation-state law’s framer, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, both of Likud. Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, who had been appointed to lead the committee charged with resolving the dispute, was abroad.

The prime minister’s communications team didn’t update the media officially regarding the meeting, as is customary, and as had been the case in previous meetings with Druze leaders.

7:30 P.M.: Squirming uncomfortably

Tens of thousands of Israelis protesting against the nation-state law in solidarity with the Druze community on August 4, 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

The sheikh, the mayors and the officers arrived at the Tel Aviv government center at around 7:30 PM. Contrary to a statement from the prime minister’s people that some of them had not been invited, particularly Assad, they were all allowed to enter. Some of the prime minister’s aides even called this a “security breach.”

Even before the meeting started, according to those present, the prime minister asked for his picture to be taken with Tarif, Amar, Kara and the mayors. The photos were to be in preparation for a statement that an agreement had been reached, in the hope that such a release could go out in time for the main TV news broadcasts at 8 P.M.

The three officers said they were on the other side of the table and thus weren’t included in the photo. Netanyahu’s people said everyone was invited to be in the picture, but the officers came into the room late.

According to people present, in Netanyahu’s brief statement to the cameras he said there had already been progress in the negotiations, even though the talks had not yet started. Even the position paper they thought they had agreed to on Wednesday was already on the table.

Druze leaders protesting against the nation-state law at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on August 4, 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

The Druze officials said that at this point they began to squirm uncomfortably. “We saw that he had supposedly prepared a paper that everything was done and agreed on,” Habish said. “He brought us in for a picture and to say that everything was fine.”

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Another participant said: “I was fuming. What’s this? It’s not what we came for.” The atmosphere became tense. One of the participants said he took out his phone to answer a text and was told to turn it off immediately.

After the photo-op, Habish told Netanyahu that the Druze officials wouldn’t agree to an arrangement that didn’t include enshrining the status of minorities in a Basic Law, or the complete annulment of the nation-state law.

At this point Assad intervened. He says he told Netanyahu that the Druze wouldn’t accept Netanyahu’s package of benefits, which only included recognition of the Druze and Circassians, as well as benefits to members of minority groups only if they had served in the security forces. Assad reiterated their demand to enshrine in a Basic Law the status of all minorities or the annulment of the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.

According to the prime minister’s people, Assad interrupted and spoke to Netanyahu “as well as to the sheikh” in an “undignified” way.

Assad and others deny this, saying he spoke calmly. Sheikh Tarif also denied that Assad had insulted him. Either way, Netanyahu responded: “I will not speak to anyone who calls me the prime minister of an apartheid government.”

On Facebook the previous day, Assad had said the nation-state law was “evil and racist” and designed to lay the groundwork for Israel to become an apartheid state. According to Assad and other participants, he answered the prime minister that he indeed “believed that the nation-state law might lead Israel to apartheid.” According to Netanyahu’s people, Assad said: “I live in an apartheid state.”

Either way, after Assad’s statement, Netanyahu left the room angrily and demanded that the meeting continue in a smaller forum, without the former officers. The Druze participants refused. The ministers and MKs met with Netanyahu in a separate room. It was clear that there would be no sincere attempt to reach understandings.

8:10 P.M.: Press statement

During the storm, at 8:10 P.M., TV reporters broadcast live based on information coming from Netanyahu’s people. They said that in the meeting the prime minister had “pledged to pass the three historic laws” – three laws to benefit the Druze community – but that “Amal Assad interrupted the sheikh and the prime minister and insulted them both. The prime minister said he wouldn’t accept an insult to the prime minister of Israel or to the state from a person who calls Israel an apartheid state.”

It was understood from this that Assad had interrupted and called Israel an apartheid state, so Netanyahu then cut the meeting short. But non-Druze people at the meeting confirmed to Haaretz that after Netanyahu realized that the meeting was not moving toward a solution, he was the first to mention apartheid and blew up the meeting after Assad refused to take back his statement and the Druze notables refused to meet with Netanyahu on their own. Then came the press statements from Netanyahu’s aides.

People close to Netanyahu say he didn’t blow up the meeting; one said “Assad wasn’t even invited and we didn’t know he would come.”

Five minutes after they left Netanyahu’s office, the phones of the Druze representatives started ringing with requests for a response. Why did you say Israel is an apartheid state, they were asked.

“We didn’t come for a statement, we came to talk,” one participant said. “We had a creative idea to move forward, but he [Netanyahu] came and gave a statement to the media and chased Amal out of the room.”

Habish said: “I think he wanted us to come for a photo-op with him and say everything was fine and he’d tell Israel that there was no point in the protest Saturday night.

As Habish put it, “I think he planned that he’d bring us, that he’d say we’re starting to work with the teams on a bill for the Druze, that we’d say thank you very much, that we’d kiss him. He planned it. When he saw it wasn’t working out, he looked for an excuse to blow the meeting up.”

Assad told Haaretz after the meeting: “I didn’t bring up the apartheid issue at all in the meeting. Netanyahu was talking about things that I wrote on Facebook over the past few days – that I wrote that the law might lead to apartheid. I stand by these statements, but Netanyahu was the one who suddenly brought them up in the meeting to blow it up.”

On Saturday night he told Haaretz: “I don’t respect the State of Israel? I respect the State of Israel more than a great many Israelis, including those sitting up there in the government, up to the highest level, without mentioning any names.”

On Channel 2’s Friday night news show, commentator Amnon Abramovich quoted a source “very close to the prime minister” as saying: “After we started out, not one word could be changed in the nation-state law. If someone didn’t like it, there’s a large Druze community in Syria and he’s invited to start a Druze state.”

The prime minister’s aides responded that a “statement like this goes against the prime minister’s worldview and his work for the Druze community, and it is ridiculous to attribute it to him.”

For its part, Likud said that Netanyahu “utterly rejects the infuriating statements posted by Assad on Facebook and which he repeated at the meeting when he said ‘I live in an apartheid state.’”