Having Been ‘Knifed in the Back,’ These Israeli Druze Won’t Be Backing Bibi This Time Around

The Druze have a history of voting for right-wing parties, but this Election Day they vow to help unseat those behind the legislation that turned them into 'second-class citizens'

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Ali Salalha walking past a Meretz election poster featuring himself, in the Druze village of Beit Jann, March 19, 2019.
Ali Salalha walking past a Meretz election poster featuring himself, in the Druze village of Beit Jann, March 19, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

What was taking place on the first floor of the cultural center in Daliat al-Carmel, the largest Druze town in Israel, could hardly be described as a political event. In one room, about a dozen women were gathered around a table, learning how to make cheese from scratch. Next door, another dozen or so were participating in a pastry-making workshop.

But it didn’t take much nudging to get them onto the topic of politics — and once they got started, they had a hard time holding back.

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With barely three weeks to go until the election, politics is on the minds of most Israelis these days. If these women are any indication, that is doubly true of their own Arabic-speaking religious minority.

Bassima Hassem. “I have three sons who served in the army and a grandfather who fought in the War of Independence. And now we’re being told that we’re not equal citizens.”Credit: Judy Maltz

The women are hurt and angry. They are hurt and angry about the nation-state law, passed last summer, which they believe turned them into second-class citizens. They are hurt and angry because they have fathers, husbands and sons who served and serve in the Israeli military and had always believed in their so-called “blood alliance” with the Jews. They are hurt and angry because until that law was passed, they had always felt part of Israeli society.

Had a poll been taken in these two rooms, the results would not bode well for the outgoing government. It would have showed that Israel’s right-wing parties — in other words, those that voted in favor the nation-state law — have lost large pockets of support in the Druze community.

“I voted for Kulanu in the last election,” says Suha Hasson, referring to the center-right party that is part of the governing coalition. “I thought they would help bring down the cost of living. But I will not give my vote again to a party that supported the nation-state law.”

    Lobna Naser el-Deen, who is helping her mix the dough for chocolate chip cookies, used to vote Likud. “But never again,” she says.

    Siham Halabe. Backing Kahol Lavan candidate Gadeer Mreeh, who is a fellow resident of Daliat al-Carmel.Credit: Judy Maltz

    Bassima Hassem is demonstrating how to prepare savory pastries stuffed with za’ater, a special blend of local herbs. As she arranges balls of dough into neat rows on the table, she explains why the nation-state law upset her so much. “I have three sons who served in the army and a grandfather who fought in the War of Independence,” she says. “And now we’re being told that we’re not equal citizens.”

    Unique appeal

    Not all the women here voted for right-wing parties in the last election in 2015. Some voted for the Zionist Union — a merger between the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. Others voted for the left-wing Meretz. A few admit they couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That certainly won’t be the case this time, they promise.

    Virtually without exception, all the women in these two rooms plan to throw their support behind Kahol Lavan, the new party headed by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz. It is the only party, according to the polls, that has any shot at ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government.

    These women remember very well Gantz’s first public statement after launching his campaign, when he said he intended to change the nation-state law. He delivered it during a meeting with a group of Druze army officers outside his home. Never mind that Gantz and members of his party have since said other things about the law. And never mind that Zvi Hauser, a former Netanyahu associate high up on the Kahol Lavan list, was one of it architects. These women are prepared to overlook such things because Kahol Lavan offers them something no other party can: a Druze woman on the ticket with a realistic chance of getting in.

    Kahol Lavan candidate Gadeer Mreeh, hoping to become the first female Druze lawmaker in Israel.Credit: Sraya Diamant

    Gadeer Mreeh, the first non-Jewish woman to anchor a Hebrew-language news broadcast in Israel, is No. 25 on the Kahol Lavan roster. If Kahol Lavan is able to maintain its current level of support in the polls, she would become the first Druze woman ever elected to the Knesset. It helps even more that she’s a resident of Daliat al-Carmel.

    Siham Halabe, who runs activities for women at the cultural center, says that with Mreeh on the list, her choice was made. “This would be a precedent, and we must support her,” she says. “She’s a strong woman, charismatic, and we all love her.”

    Sima Sallah, a local caterer participating in the cheese-making workshop, couldn’t agree more. “We’re all behind Gadeer,” she says. “She’s young, she’s smart, she’s successful, and she’ll look out for us. Besides that, it’s time for change in this country.”

    Sima Sallah. “We’re all behind Gadeer Mreeh. She’s young, she’s smart, she’s successful, and she’ll look out for us. Besides that, it’s time for change in this country.”Credit: Judy Maltz

    “Bibi has been prime minister for so many years,” says Sallah, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “He wasn’t that bad, but neither was he good. And whether he likes it or not, this is my country too.”

    In the last election, she voted for Kulanu. The reason the party captured so many votes in this town, the locals explain, is that Akram Hasoon, the former mayor of Carmel City — a city formed by the recent merger of Daliat al-Carmel, where he comes from, and nearby Isfiya — was high on its ticket. He was not the only representative of this northern Israeli town to serve in the outgoing Knesset: Ayoub Kara, a member of Likud who was later appointed communications minister, also lives here. In the recent Likud primary, however, he was pushed to the bottom of the list and has little chance of regaining his Knesset seat.

    ‘We need to punish them’

    In the last election, Kulanu won 38 percent of the vote here — more than any other party. It was followed by Zionist Union, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, in that order.

    Amir Khnifess. “People are really upset with Netanyahu, and they see Kahol Lavan as the best chance of challenging him. I do wish, though, that more Druze would vote for Labor.”Credit: Judy Maltz

    The results in the upcoming race will be very different, these women believe. As Hassem predicts: “Kahol Lavan is going to win most of the vote here.”

    Amir Khnifess, director of the Institute for Druze Studies in Isfiya, believes that as Daliat al-Carmel goes, so will the entire Druze community. “People are really upset with Netanyahu, and they see Kahol Lavan as the best chance of challenging him,” he says. “I do wish, though, that more Druze would vote for Labor.”

    His attachment to the party goes back a long way. In the 1950s, Khnifess’ grandfather, recruited by Labor, became the first Druze to sit in the Knesset. He tried to continue the family tradition and ran in the recent Labor primary, but did not win enough votes for a realistic spot on the ticket. These days, he’s busy with a new campaign that urges Druze voters not to support any right-wing parties in the election. “We need to punish them for the nation-state law,” he says.

    About 136,000 Druze live in Israel. Their main communities are in the Carmel region near Haifa, the Galilee and the Golan Heights. Only a minority, says Khnifess, identify primarily as Arabs. In the early years of the state, the vast majority of Israeli Druze voted for the ruling Labor Party (and its predecessor, Mapai). But since Likud first came to power in 1977, growing numbers vote for right-wing parties. Only a very small minority, says Khnifess, support the Arab parties.

    An election debate featuring Druze candidates in the village of Beit Jann, March 19, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu

    The number of voting-age Druze in Israel is barely equivalent to one of the 120 seats in the Knesset, yet most parties try to have at least one Druze representative on their list. It proves, says Khnifess, that the significance of this community goes well beyond its size.

    Having a Druze representative on a party ticket, he adds, has also proven helpful in bringing in votes in that candidate’s hometown. A case in point is Shfaram, a large Arab city in northern Israel, where Khnifess also lives. After the 2015 election, many Israelis wondered how Yisrael Beiteinu — a party known for its anti-Arab rhetoric — could have captured thousands of votes in the city. “What many of them didn’t know,” explains Khnifess, “is that Shfaram also has a small Druze community, and Yisrael Beiteinu had a Druze on its list from Shfaram. So all the Druze in town voted for Yisrael Beiteinu.”

    ‘Brothers in blood’

    For that very reason, Meretz appears poised to sweep the vote in Beit Jann, a small Druze village in the Galilee. Anyone passing through can’t avoid the image of Ali Salalha, whose face is featured on virtually every campaign billboard in town. A newcomer to politics, Salalha is a local hero of sorts. For 20 years, he served as principal of Beit Jann’s high school, which for the past four years has ranked No. 1 in the country.

    Salalha, 67, had planned to retire at the end of this year. But when an election was suddenly called, he decided to step down earlier than planned and throw his hat in with Meretz, a party he has always supported. Salalha did unusually well in the party primary, finishing fourth (he’s fifth on the ticket, as party Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg fills the top spot). Based on recent polls, that gives him a reasonable shot at getting into the next Knesset. If he succeeds, he would be the first Druze to represent Meretz.

    Beit Jann high school which has been the number one school in Israel for the past four years, March 19, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu

    The nation-state law clearly provided him with the impetus to move into politics. “After all these years of hearing that we are brothers in blood, it was like getting a knife in the back and spat on in the face,” he says. A huge Meretz poster decorates the front of his house. It clearly has the local population in mind. “To be free in our land and to obtain our rights,” it reads.

    On this weekday morning, Salalha is back at his old school, but this time in his new role: He’s participating in an election debate with Druze candidates from the other parties. There’s no mock election after the debate, but judging from the student responses, it is clear who the winner would be. Salalha can barely pull himself away from the excited students jumping all over him and snapping selfies as he tries to make his exit.

    On the way home, where his wife has prepared lunch, Salalha is greeted by a former student, now studying for a degree in engineering at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, one of Israel’s top universities. When asked what party he will be voting for, Haitham Dahroung responds: “Meretz, obviously. I’m with Ali.”

    Youssef Assad, a construction foreman, is another former student who happens to pass by. Assad says he voted Likud in the last election. “Regretfully,” he adds.

    “Only now did it click for me that they’ve been taking advantage of all of us who live out here in the periphery,” he says. He, too, will be voting for Meretz. So will Hossen Qeis, an insurance agent who cast his ballot with Kulanu in the last election. “Meretz has a great candidate this year, and he happened to have been my teacher,” he says with a wink as he greets Salalha in the street.

    In 2015, Zionist Union won 46 percent of the vote in Beit Jann, more than any other party. Next in line were Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu — two parties at risk of not crossing the electoral threshold on April 9, according to recent polls. Saleh Saad, the Druze candidate on Labor’s ticket, is also from Beit Jann, but far too low on his party’s slate to get in this time around.

    Election posters on the outskirts of the Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel, March 19, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu

    It would be strange if Meretz — a party known for championing gay rights and cannabis legalization — ended up the biggest winner in this traditional Druze village. But if you understand how the Druze in Israel vote, says Khnifess, you understand how that could happen.

    “It’s why you had so many Druze vote for Avigdor Lieberman,” he says, referring to the former defense minister and leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, “even though they were aware of his far-right views. They know that no party is perfect and that they’re not always going to agree with everything in a party’s platform.

    “As far as the Druze in Beit Jann are concerned,” he adds, “there are two different Meretz parties: There’s the Meretz of Beit Jann, and there’s the Meretz of Tel Aviv. They’ll be voting for the Meretz of Beit Jann.”

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