'Netanyahu Will Try to Divide and Conquer': Israel's Druze Both Hopeful and Wary After Landmark Protest

The demonstration, led mainly by retired army officers and mayors, is seen as a challenge to the Druze traditional spiritual leadership

Israeli Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muwafak Tarif at the Druze-organized rally against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, August 4, 2018.
AFP

The day after the mass rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square against the nation-state law, members of Israel's Druze community are still basking in its afterglow. Participants in the rally, including Druze community elders who have led other public battles, say this is the largest demonstration the Druze community has ever organized, both in numbers and in terms of the forces leading the protest itself.

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Many say that the demonstration, led mainly by retired army officers and mayors, was seen as a challenge to the community’s traditional spiritual leadership, headed by Sheikh Muwafak Tarif. Therefore, it is said in the community that the struggle depends on those leaders, rather than on the spiritual figures. A key activist told Haaretz that the spiritual leadership sensed the energies of the demonstration and heard its messages, which is why it was not quick to accept the plan offered by the prime minister last week. The only way to bring about a change in the nation-state law or create legislation that would ensure equality for everyone, the activist said, was to continue fighting on all fronts: publically, legally and in the Knesset.

The mayor of Yarka, Wahib Habish, who is one of the people negotiating with the government over the nation-state law, says the rally backed the leadership up and that the expectation is that the negotiators will stick to their demand to change or amend the law. “We received a proposal from the prime minister’s bureau and we say it’s not enough and doesn’t meet the main demand, which is to ensure equality for everyone. We can’t be bought off with benefits and rhetoric on closing gaps. That’s a demand that exists without reference to the nation-state law. Today we are looking at things in terms of what I can say to my son and my grandson and to everyone’s children, all citizens of the state. And so the words equality for everyone should appear in the law or in an amendment. No other plan is relevant,” Habish said.

According to Habish, the Druze negotiating team is consulting with senior legal figures to present its own proposal to the prime minister. This proposal will be in line with the community’s expectations that the law maintain the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, and will have a legal basis. “We will not act under pressure. Anyhow, this is August and the Knesset is on break and the holidays are coming up soon, so until October we have time and so we’ll sit and put together a very detailed proposal. We won’t agree to a plan that makes us out to be political wheeler-dealers or leaders who sold their principles.”

Habish said that the plan as offered to them extends equality only for those who served in the security forces, and is unacceptable “because even in the Druze community and among the Bedouin there are those who don’t serve. We’re not going to start categorizing according to who served and who didn’t.”

Many in the community, including the leadership of the current struggle against the nation-state law, realize that the prime minister’s people will be working hard in the near future to reach an agreement on the proposal that is already on the table, with minor changes.

“Netanyahu will try at any price to break this weekend's show [of unity], and the tactics are known – the carrot and the stick or divide and conquer,” Marzuq Halabi, a writer and columnist who lives in Daliat el-Carmel, said. Halabi, who attended Saturday night’s rally, said that the claim that the left was behind the rally is part of the same campaign attempting to break the protest, while offering a plan that would give the Druze community a “carrot” in the form of funding. “It’s not working for them because the Druze community feels that this time the struggle is not only for benefits but for the future of their status between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The best situation for a minority within a minority is to feel part of the general community as an equal citizen. Because if you look at the situation today, the Jews on the one hand and the Arabs on the other are almost equal in numbers if you erase the Green Line [the pre-1967 border], and so where are the Druze in this equation?”

MK Akram Hasoon (Kulanu) said that branding the rally leftist is part of the campaign being waged by the prime minister’s bureau. “It’s true that most of the people at the forefront of the rally were supposedly identified with the center and the left, but no one told right-wing people not to come; on the contrary, there is a right wing that believes in the principles we support and agrees to equality for all and so this is a baseless claim.”

Hasoon said that over the past few days a few Druze leaders had approached Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to ask him to go to the prime minister to ask that the nation-state law be amended or to initiate legislation that would ensure equality for all, as a means of ending the crisis.

The Druze community realizes that a fight as extensive as this one will also lead to internal power struggles in the community, and that the longer the issue remains unresolved, the greater the fear that pressure will increase on all sides. The struggle's leaders say they believe that the prime minister will not fold, at least not in the coming months, because the nation-state law will be one of the main components in his election campaign. Hence, they are bracing for a protracted fight that could extend over many months.

Attorney Shaqib Ali, who also attended the rally, agrees that it sent a message both to the prime minister and to the traditional Druze leadership. “For many years the State of Israel fostered the political and spiritual leadership that was convenient for it, which it could pressure whenever it wants. This time, too, they tried to do it, as we saw in the meeting last week, but suddenly they encountered other voices, a generation that is not willing to accept dictates and a generation that doesn’t kowtow to the ministers and the government.”

According to Ali, we are no longer in an era where ministers are hosted over a dish of traditional goat cheese and olive oil, in order to receive benefits. There is a more educated generation that knows what it wants and so the position is clearer: the nation-state law has to be shelved.” Ali says he thinks that the Druze mayors and some members of the negotiating team understand this, otherwise the plan offered by the prime minister last week would have been accepted, as everyone thought it would be.

Samer Sweid, of the town of Peki’in in the Galilee Mountains, and a member of the Hadash party, who was also present at the rally, said he did not agree with some of the slogans there. The sign he held called for equal rights for everyone and opposed what he called the "mercenary talk.” He said the overwhelming sentiment in the crowd was the equality is key and that Netanyahu should go home. Sweid also believes the rally presented a challenge to the traditional leadership but he says this is still not a vote of no-confidence in that leadership. “The feeling as of yesterday was that the leadership is able to include the majority and is in control of the grass roots. But everything of course depends on the outcome of the struggle. If it succeeds, there’s no doubt that it will give them strength but if they compromise and go, for example, for the plan that was offered, there’s no doubt it will create a shock wave in the community,” Sweid said. 

Sources close to Sheikh Tarif have vehemently rejected the claim that has reached any compromise or agreement with the government. There are those in the Druze community who have an interest to harm the Sheikh and his leadership, sources said, while the Sheikh is the one standing at the forefront of opposition to Netanyahu's proposal.