Amid Druze outcry, Netanyahu calls meeting to examine nation-state law

While agreeing to meet next week with members of the minority group, prime minister says he won’t consider changing legislation

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Sheikh Muwaffak Tarīf (2nd-Right), the spiritual leader of Israel's Druze community, in the village of Julis in northern Israel, on April 25, 2013 (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Sheikh Muwaffak Tarīf (2nd-Right), the spiritual leader of Israel's Druze community, in the village of Julis in northern Israel, on April 25, 2013 (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

In a surprise move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that he plans to convene a meeting next week on the Jewish nation-state law amid a fierce outcry against the legislation by the Druze minority.

Netanyahu will not consider amending the law, however, Hebrew media sources reported.

“There is a need to explain things and clear the background noise, but there will be no change in the nation-state law,” Channel 10 news quoted sources close to the premier as saying.

Though he will not change the law, Netanyahu is open to “other moves aimed at improving conditions for the Druze,” according to the reports.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara — the sole Druze minister in the cabinet — will also take part in the meeting, Channel 10 reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Shnaan family, whose son Kamil was killed in a July 14 attack on the Temple Mount, in the northern Druze town of Hurfeish, July 27, 2017. (GPO)

The reports came after Education Minister Naftali Bennett earlier Wednesday vowed to work to “heal the wound” the law has inflicted on the Druze community.

Sources close to Bennett told The Times of Israel that the Jewish Home leader is open to amending the nation-state law.

“After discussions with many of our Druze brothers, it has become clear that the manner in which the nation-state law was enacted was very damaging especially to them, and to anyone who has tied their fate to the Jewish state,” Bennett said. “This, of course, was not the intention of the Israeli government.”

Shachiv Shnaan, a former lawmaker, said it was hard to find any Druze who was not livid over the legislation.

“We were educated and raised as Israelis, educated to love this state and the partnership with the Jewish people,” Shnaan told Channel 10.

“We see the state as the best place in world to be Druze and we don’t agree in any way that someone will deprive us of the right to be citizens of a country we love so much,” added Shnaan, whose son Kamil was one of two Druze police officers killed last year in a terror attack at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Communications Minister Ayoub Kara speaks at a Likud party event in Lod on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Sunday, Israeli Druze leaders, including three Knesset members, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the Jewish nation-state legislation, saying it was an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.

Kara, a member of the ruling Likud party, said he had been warned by state security services of death threats made against him by members of the Druze community following his vote in favor of the law.

The Druze MKs opposing the law come from across the political spectrum — from the coalition, MK Hamed Amar of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party and MK Akram Hasson of the centrist Kulanu party, and from the opposition, MK Salah Sa’ad of the Labor party, represented in the Knesset by the center-left Zionist Union.

All three served in Israel’s security forces and have been active in Zionist organizations.

Bennett said that Israel’s Druze community “are our brothers who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us on the battlefield and made a covenant with us — a covenant of life.”

He also said that the government has “a responsibility to find a way to heal the wounds.”

A spokesperson for Bennett declined to say whether he would back amending the legislation but the Jewish Home minister later tweeted a broad defense of the law, saying it was “necessary and just” but that there was “a specific mistake regarding our brothers the Druze that needs to be fixed.”

Similar to a constitution, the Basic Laws underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws. The nation-state law, proponents say, which became a Basic Law, puts Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the law effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arabs and other minority communities.

The law also declares that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, and recognizes Independence Day, days of remembrance and Jewish holidays. One clause of the bill downgrades the Arabic language from official to “special” standing, but also cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”

Druze IDF soldiers from the now-disbanded Battalion 299 in the field with the Druze flag. (Courtesy/IDF Flickr)

The Druze constitute a small minority, not quite 10%, of Israel’s Arab population. Around 138,000 of the world’s estimated 2.3 million adherents call Israel home; Syria is home to half a million and Lebanon to another 250,000.

The Druze, a breakaway sect from Islam, are the only minority that has taken upon itself Israel’s mandatory draft and serves in large numbers alongside Jewish soldiers in some of the IDF’s most elite units

The religion splintered off from Shia Islam in the late 10th century CE and spread to the Levant by the following century. Its actual beliefs and practices are kept a close secret by its members, but its theological principles draw from Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and a variety of other faith systems.

Bennett declined to say whether he has discussed the law with members of Israel’s Arab Israeli population or whether he felt it also “damaged” them.

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