Analysis

Druze Nation-state Crisis: Israeli Army Chief Forced to Put Out Fire Netanyahu Started

Whether the IDF takes disciplinary steps against the Druze officers who are resigning, it must be attentive to the community, and safeguard against any crisis that develops among its soldiers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with leaders of the Druze community following the social crisis that erupted in the wake of the nation-state law.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s statements following the Druze community’s response to the nation-state law, referenced a few vital matters, albeit a few days late.

Eisenkot is not allowed at present to relate directly to the law; perhaps we’ll hear his opinion in another five months when his term as chief of staff ends. But he had to relate to the pain of the community, which has gone from criticism voiced by senior retired officers to announcements of resignations by two young professional Druze officers.

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Israel’s controversial nation-state law threatens to tear the IDF apart

In his remarks on Tuesday, the chief of staff urged soldiers and commanders to leave political controversies outside the realm of the military. He also reiterated the IDF’s commitment to the Druze and other minorities in its service. It's possible to argue with his definition of the debate as "political." It is a dispute in principle over the wording of the new law, even if it does have clear political significance. And it may be that Eisenkot would have been better off summoning a group of Druze professional soldiers for an open discussion of their feelings, instead of sufficing with a unilateral, written statement.

By the way, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s voice on this issue has yet to be heard.

The struggle against this law is being led by Druze leaders. As expected, former senior IDF brass have also joined in – both because of their standing in the community and because they are the best-known of its figures in terms of the Jewish public.

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The anger and insult at the wording of the law, and the subjugation it may imply for the status of Druze members of the security forces as compared to their Jewish peers, have sparked a series of comments condemning the government and throwing the future of the community's “covenant of blood” with the state into question. The leaders and retired officers tried to avoid calling for resignations or rejecting military service, out of an understanding of the fragile nature of relations.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.
David Bachar

The recent Facebook posts of two Druze officers – a company commander and a deputy company commander – reflect the pain felt by those in active duty.

The IDF may decide to take disciplinary steps against these men for making public statements on a controversial issue while mentioning their status as professional officers. But the IDF must be attentive to the undercurrents of the community, and safeguard itself against any crisis that may develop over time involving Druze soldiers and officers in professional service as well as reservists.

In 2000, after Border Policeman Madhat Yusuf bled to death at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a similar protest arose (years later the army quietly granted exemptions from reserve duty to several of the victim's relatives, who were very angry over the incident). This time, a much larger issue is at stake, which may well elicit tougher reactions over time.

The current crisis erupts at an otherwise good period in terms of the IDF’s treatment of minority recruits. Eisenkot objects in principle to the continued creation of units serving specific communities, except for the ultra-Orthodox Nahal units that were established by government order.

Eisenkot has shut down the Druze infantry battalion called Herev (Sword), and cut the Bedouin desert patrol down to the size of a company. The IDF has also removed obstacles that had kept Druze soldiers from joining classified units, and increasing numbers of soldiers and officers from the community are being integrated more easily into the elite forces.

The options before young Druze recruits have for some time not been limited to a separate unit, Border Police or the Civil Administration. The shoulder-to-shoulder service they do with Jews and others certainly helps relations among the various communities serving in the IDF. But now a debate has arisen over the nation-state law, which isn’t the fault of the IDF, although some of its repercussions have certainly fallen in its backyard.

PM unlikely to back down

In the meantime, Druze leaders are discussing a possible solution to the crisis with staff at the Prime Minister's Office. On the agenda is the advancement of economic and social initiatives of concern to the community. However, the chances of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracking from the nation-state law don't look great at this time.

The prime minister has been heard saying even in recent days that opposition parties have made the wrong electoral calculations: In his opinion, their opposition to the law brands them in the eyes of many right-wing voters as acting "against the Jews."

Before publication of the most recent polls, Netanyahu estimated that the fight over the contentious new legislation was beneficial to him politically. Thus, it's hard to imagine him zigzagging as he did do recently with the surrogacy law and beforehand, when he reneged on his agreement to a deal with the United Nations over asylum seekers from Africa.

Many have in recent days recalled the video of "Arabs streaming to the polls in droves" that Netanyahu posted on Election Day in 2015. The premier has actually exploited this sentiment to great success for decades, since the days when he ran against Shimon Peres in 1996. Then the decisive message of the campaign funded by Australian millionaire and ordained rabbi Joseph Gutnick, in the weeks leading up to the vote, was "Netanyahu is good for the Jews." The left's objections were of no use, Netanyahu knew exactly what message he was disseminating.

Therefore, it seems that this time as well, from the Druze standpoint, the media and opposition can continue to protest. By means of the furor stirred up by the nation-state law, the prime minister is broadcasting a double although perhaps not entirely explicit message: Bibi is good for the Jews and if, along the way, members of other religious and ethnic groups are hurt – it is doubtful whether that will sadden all his voters.

In advance of a possible election, against the backdrop of the ongoing security crisis in the Gaza Strip (where the government is finding it hard to present a tough front), the nation-state law and the responses it is getting from the right are a strong political asset. At the moment, Likud won't give up such an asset just because of some angry Druze army officers. Instead, they are embracing them a little, making a few promises and moving on according to plan. It looks like the policy will change only if the opposition succeeds – against all current predictions – to turn the protest into an effective and continuous struggle.