Nation-state Law Backlash: Druze Leaders Say Netanyahu's Offer May Set 'Historical Precedent'

Some Druze representatives say Netanyahu is trying to implement a policy of 'divide and conquer' ■ Netanyahu: Anyone who serves in the military should be eligible for benefits ■ PM plan includes passing Basic Law for Druze

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Druze representative, August 1, 2018.

Representatives of the Druze community said Thursday night that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal to pass a law to strengthen the status of the Druze and Circassian communities is "a window of opportunity to set a historical precedent for the advancement of the Druze community and its status in the State of Israel." 

Representatives, headed by Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, will continue talks with Netanyahu's team, which has been appointed to make an agreement on both sides. 

Contrary to Druze leaders who have said Netanyahu's offer may set "historical precedent," MK Saleh Saad (Zionist Union) responded Thursday, saying that "As long as this doesn't happen, the proposal letter to the Druze community isn't worth the paper that it's written on, and from my standpoint, it's possible to make a paper airplane out of the letter."

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

Netanyahu's proposed law follows the protest sparked by the nation-state law. The plan outlines a Basic Law and a regular law that will recognize the contribution of minorities who defend the country by "enshrining eligibility for the benefits of minority members of all religions and communities who serve in the security forces, for the purpose of closing gaps and promoting social equality."

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Another demonstration against the nation-state law is slated for Saturday evening in Tel Aviv. 

According to the plan submitted by the prime minister's representatives, "the law will recognize the contribution of the Druze community to the security of the state, and will include support for community institutions (religion, education and culture), will strengthen Druze residential settlements, and establish new towns if needed. It will also preserve and cultivate Druze heritage."

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) congratulated "the agreement we have reached with the Druze leadership. Recognizing the rights of those who serve in the security forces is an achievement." Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) said in response: "The Prime Minister ranks Israel's citizens, and he divides and rules the minorities from whom he has stolen equality in his Basic Law. He got scared after the fact. Netanyahu's government has torn apart the Declaration of Independence and the values of equality on which the state was founded. Now they're making laws in honor of the Druze community, as if equality is a prize and not a right that all of us have."

The proposal drew mixed reactions from the Druze community, MK Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu), one of the two Druze MKs who petitioned the Supreme Court against the nation-state law, congratulated the plan. MK Saleh Saad (Zionist Union) said he will continue with the petition and said: "I am sad that my friends have succumbed to pressures and withdrew from the petition."

The negotiating team of the Druze community, which includes their spiritual leader, Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, former security officials and civil servants, has had strong disagreements over the proposal. One of the team members told Haaretz that the representatives who have security backgrounds tend to accept the spirit of the plan, while others – including local council heads – oppose it.

The source added that some of the representatives accused the prime minister of trying to implement a policy of "divide and conquer." They said that they would settle only for annulling the nation-state law or adding to it the value of equality. The source added that the Prime Minister's Office is concerned about the protest rally scheduled for Saturday night, and therefore is exerting heavy pressure on the representatives of the community to accept the plan and cancel the rally.

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The plan was drafted by a team formed by the prime minister on the issue of the Druze, headed by the acting Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister's Bureau, Yoav Horowitz, and including Sheikh Tarif, ministers Ayoub Kara and Yariv Levin, MK Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu), former MK Shakib Shenan, heads of the Druze local authorities and the forum of reservist senior officers.

The prime minister's office called the plan "historic" in a press release, saying it "represents a revolution in the legal status of minority group members who serve in the security forces, and members of the Druze community in particular." Sheikh Tarif welcomed the work of the team and thanked the prime minister for his quick and serious activity. The plan will be presented to the Druze community's dignitaries.

The plan offers to enshrine a Basic Law - Israeli constitutional equivalent - for the status of the Druze and Circassian communities, "paying respect to the contribution of the Druze community to the State of Israel in building the land, strengthening security and shaping the face of Israeli society as an egalitarian and diverse society."

The plan also suggests enshrining in law that members of minority groups, from all religions and ethnic groups will be eligible for benefits if they serve in the security forces. The law will also recognize their contribution if they serve.

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Several Druze officers have left the Israeli military in recent days over the nation-state law.

The Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, also known as the nation-state law, approved by the Knesset on July 19, affirmed that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel. It also downgraded Arabic to a language with “special status,” among several other controversial measures that affect the Israeli Druze.

The nation-state law is designed to alter the application of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty in court rulings, and permits judges to give priority to Israel’s Jewish character in their rulings.

Earlier this month, Druze lawmakers were the first to file a High Court of Justice petition against the legislation. A hundred Druze Israel Defense Forces reserve officers added their voices to that effort on Wednesday, prompting Education Minister Naftali Bennett to speak out in support of “our blood brothers” on Twitter.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon echoed similar sentiments, telling Israeli Army Radio, "The enactment of the nation-state law was done hastily," and adding: "We were wrong and we need to fix it."

The acting Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister's Bureau announced the formation of a ministerial committee to deal with the issue of the Druze community, to be headed by the prime minister, which will work to promote the plan and to supervise its implementation - among other things.

Details of the plan will be formulated and worded within 45 days, in the context of a joint team of the cabinet and representatives of the community, all subject to the instructions of the law and the approval of the attorney general. Legislative activities will begin immediately with the convening of the coming winter session of the Knesset and will be concluded within 45 days from the start of the session.