Druze leaders tell Rivlin many feel excluded over nation-state law

‘We want full civil equality for all residents,’ mayor of Daliyat al-Karmel tells president, who says: ‘We should make sure you feel equal’

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

Leader of Israel’s Druze community met Sunday with President Reuven Rivlin amid ongoing tensions over the controversial nation-state law, and decried the legislation as discriminatory.

After meeting earlier in the day with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to establish a team to address various issues, Druze regional council leaders told Rivlin they had expressed concerns over the law, which the premier said would not be altered.

“We view it as a discriminatory law that doesn’t pay heed to our citizenship or relevance, and we told him in a clear, unequivocal way that we want full civil equality for all residents,” Rafik Halabi, mayor of the Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel, told the president.

“We cannot live in a state when there are feelings of exclusion among parts of the population that is loyal and good,” Halabi added.

Referring to the many Druze and Arab academics and doctors, Halabi added: “What will you tell them? That they aren’t citizens? Not equal? Basic Laws should be relevant to everyone, not just the dominant part.”

Rivlin struck a conciliatory tone, saying that “our partnership exists at the core and foundation of this state, and we can realize that equation without any problem.”

“I expressed my opinion during the Knesset discussions,” he added. “I have no doubt that you are legally equal, and we should make sure that you also feel equal.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Druze regional council heads at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 29, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The nation-state bill — 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 from Israel’s minorities, the international community and Jewish groups abroad.

The law, proponents say, 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 became one of the Basic Law, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

Earlier Sunday, the community leaders met Netanyahu in his office in Jerusalem amid ongoing efforts to make amends over the controversial legislation, which enshrines Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people.

Netanyahu announced that the government would establish a team that would “quickly bring forward recommendations for actions that will strengthen our important ties.

“You are describing real feelings and we need a solution,” Netanyahu told leaders of local and regional councils, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

The team will be headed by Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, the prime minister added.

Also taking part in the meeting were Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, a member of the ruling Likud party and the only Druze member of the cabinet.

The meetings came as opposition to the law continued to mount, with coalition lawmakers calling for changes to address concerns in the Druze community, and others continuing to protest provisions in the law derided as discriminatory toward the country’s non-Jews.

Communications Minister Ayoub Kara speaks at a press conference about the Communications Ministry’s move to shut down the Jerusalem office of Al Jazeera on August 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“There are unceasing attempts to undo the definition of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said in his statement. “We passed the nation-state law in order to ensure that Israel remains the nation-state of our people — this is the purpose of the state’s existence.

“The [nation-state] law does not in any way diminish the individual rights of anyone. It is meant to achieve the needed legal balance to ensure Israel’s character.”

Kara praised Netanyahu’s move, adding that the team would present its findings in a matter of days.

“I welcome the prime minister’s decision, together with the Druze council heads, to establish a special team to discuss and solve the sect’s acute problems — in workforce, education, enforcement on illegal construction of houses, [rights of] discharged soldiers, and more,” he wrote on Twitter.

Members of Israel’s Druze community arrive to attend a celebration at the holy tomb of Nebi Shu’eib in northern Israel on April 25, 2018. (AFP Photo Jalaa/Marey)

Last week, Israeli Druze leaders, including three Knesset members, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the legislation, saying it was an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.

Israeli ministers have moved to reassure the Druze community that it is valued in Israeli society and have proposed a raft of placatory measures.

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 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.”

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