Druze leaders say protest, talks over nation-state law to continue

After some praise compromise proposal, community representatives indicate they are not yet ready to accept PMO deal for changes to offset controversial legislation

Activists and supporters of the Druze community in Israel set up a protest tent in Tel Aviv on August 1, 2018. ( Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Activists and supporters of the Druze community in Israel set up a protest tent in Tel Aviv on August 1, 2018. ( Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The leadership of Israel’s Druze community vowed to push ahead with a planned weekend protest but said they would continue negotiations with the government over changes to offset controversial new legislation that critics say discriminates against non-Jewish groups, indicating a compromise deal had yet to be reached.

Community representatives said in a statement early Thursday that they have decided to “continue talks with the staff of the Prime Minister’s Office based on the principles of the draft proposed in order to come to an agreement accepted by both sides.”

The statement came after several hours of talks between Druze community representatives and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office over proposed fixes to offset the nation-state law, which enshrines Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

The law has been criticized as putting Israel’s non-Jewish minorities into a second class and has prompted outrage from the Druze community, which takes pride in its service in the Israel Defense Forces.

The statement Thursday said there was a “window of opportunity for an unprecedented historic advancement of the Druze community and its status in the State of Israel,” but indicated the community would not accept a compromise plan offered by the PMO.

A protest demonstration against the law slated for Saturday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square would go on as planned, the statement said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with representatives of the Druze community at his office in Jerusalem on August 1, 2018. (Prime Minister’s Office)

The prime minister’s acting chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, offered the compromise to Druze representatives led by spiritual head Sheikh Muafak Tarif during a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem Wednesday.

The concession plan envisions legislation to anchor the status of the Druze and Circassian communities in law and provide benefits to members of minority groups who serve in the security forces, the PMO said in a statement. Support of Druze religious, education and culture institutes will also be included in the legislation.

In addition, recognition of the contribution made by all minorities and communities that participate in the defense of the state will be written into the country’s Basic Laws, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif at his office in Jerusalem on August 1, 2018. (Prime Minister’s Office)

Speaking to Hadashot TV news, Tarif said Wednesday it was “an historic and good offer.”

“This is an opportunity for us to receive all the rights assured us,” he said. “I am optimistic that it will be done and that the prime minister will keep to his word on every detail.”

He had indicated that the protest would be called off if the community accepted the offer.

Exposing disagreements within the community over the compromise, opposition Druze lawmaker Saleh Saad (Zionist Union) said Wednesday he would push forward with a High Court of Justice petition against the law, even as MKs Akram Hasson (Kulanu) and Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beytenu), both in the coalition, dropped out of the lawsuit and announced that they are willing to accept the proposal.

Illustrative: A memorial service for Israeli soldiers at the military cemetery in the Druze village of Isfiya in northern Israel. (Government Press Office)

Unlike Arab Israelis, members of both the Druze and Circassian minorities are subject to Israel’s mandatory draft and serve in large numbers alongside Jewish soldiers in some of the IDF’s most elite units.

Since the beginning of the week, several Druze IDF officers have said they will resign their commissions in protest of the legislation, which was passed as a Basic Law on July 19.

While the officers have been reprimanded and told not to mix politics with military service, President Reuven Rivlin appeared to back their protest in a speech Wednesday extolling equality in the military.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) meeting with Druze community leaders at his residence in Jerusalem on July 29, 2018. (Mark Neiman/ GPO)

“In the IDF you serve together, shoulder to shoulder, Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers as one,” he said at a military ceremony. “The value of equality is significant in the IDF. There’s no separating between blood and blood, between citizen and citizen.”

The nation-state law — which for the first time 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” — has sparked widespread criticism at home including from Israel’s minorities and opposition political parties, and from the international community and Jewish groups abroad. It also downgrades the status of Arabic so that it is no longer an official language in Israel.

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