'We have a life alliance,' Gantz tells Druze protesters

Breaking silence, Gantz says he will ‘fix’ nation-state law to help Druze

Drawing fire from right and left, former army chief and would-be PM tells Druze activists controversial legislation weakens close bonds with their community, which serves in IDF

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz seen with members of the Druze community and activists outside his home in Rosh Ha'ayin, during a protest against the nation-state law, January 14, 2019. (Flash90)
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz seen with members of the Druze community and activists outside his home in Rosh Ha'ayin, during a protest against the nation-state law, January 14, 2019. (Flash90)

After weeks of refusing to give interviews or make public statements, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, the chairman of the new Israel Resilience party, offered on Monday a glimpse of his largely unknown political views, breaking his silence with a vow to “fix” the controversial nation-state law to help the Druze community.

Speaking to Druze activists who congregated outside his home in Rosh Ha’ayin to say that the law is discriminatory toward the country’s non-Jews, Gantz said that Israel should work to strengthen bonds with its Druze community, which he said was a valued segment of Israeli society.

“I will do everything in my power to act to fix the law,” he said to the activists, who had visited his house as part of a nationwide tour meant to raise awareness of Druze opposition to the law ahead of a High Court hearing on the legislation later this month.

The nation-state law enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It also defines Arabic as a language with a “special” status, effectively downgrading it from its de facto status as a second official language, though it cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”

The Netanyahu government says the new law merely enshrines the country’s existing character, and that Israel’s democratic nature and provisions for equality are already anchored in existing quasi-constitutional legislation. But critics, both at home and abroad, say it undermines Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens. It has prompted particular outrage from Israel’s Druze minority, whose members — many of whom serve in the Israeli army — say the law’s provisions render them second-class citizens.

Druze activists and supporters protest against the Jewish nation-state bill, which they said is discriminatory, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on August 4, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz, who is seen as one of the only possible threats to a Netanyahu victory in the April 9 elections, said that amending the law would “express the connection [between the Druze community and the State of Israel], a deep and unbreakable connection not only in battle, but also in life. We have a blood pact, but more than that, we have a life alliance.”

To the cheers of the protesters, he promised: “We’ll do it together.”

Gantz formally launched his Israel Resilience party late last month, but has been largely mum on his positions.

Monday’s statements were met with immediate criticism from both the right and left of the political spectrum.

The Likud party said that Gantz’s comments showed he was in the same ideological basket as Hatnua chief Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid.

“When Ganz attacks the national law and Tzipi Livni congratulates him for it, everyone knows the obvious: Ganz is left, just like Lapid,” the party said in a statement.

Opposition leader and chairwoman of Hatnua party, Tzipi Livni, speaks during a press conference at the Knesset, on January 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Livni, who has spoken publicly about her wish to form a centrist bloc with Gantz, said she “welcomed” his comments, vowing that her own party would push to replace the law with a bill enshrining the Declaration of Independence as the guide for Israel’s Jewish identity.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, one of the key Likud lawmakers behind the law, said it “anchors the Zionist idea and the basis for the State of Israel, and any violation of it would harm Jewish settlement and Jewish identity.”

The New Right party echoed previous attempts by right-wing politicians to label Gantz a “leftist,” saying that his comments “reveal his true stance.”

“Gantz’s first statement in politics makes very clear he is a member of the left.‬ ‪The nation-state law was a historic achievement that restored the state’s national, Jewish, and Zionist character, in the face of its continued erosion by the Supreme Court,” the party said.

But Tamar Zandberg, chair of the left-wing Meretz party, said Gantz’s comments didn’t go far enough and were in fact a boon for the right.

“The nation-state law does not have to be fixed,” she said in a statement, arguing that it should instead be fully repealed and charging that “the very discussion of the wording of the law is the true victory of the right.”

The Israel Resilience party called the responses “hysterical” and said of the criticism from the right, “they shot our Druze brothers in the back – we will heal [the wound].”

The only other recent indication of the political direction that Gantz is facing came on the Israel Resilience’s party registration form, which said it would seek “continued development and strengthening of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state according to the Zionist vision as it is expressed in the Declaration of Independence, while establishing and changing national priorities in the fields of education, development of national infrastructure, agriculture, rule of law and internal security, peace and security.”

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