Meeting Druze leaders, Netanyahu doubles down on nation-state law

PM promises to establish a team to focus on strengthening minority’s ties with state; Druze minister welcomes step, says recommendations due within days

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)
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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Sunday with leaders of Israel’s Druze community in his office in Jerusalem amid ongoing efforts to make amends over the recently passed nation-state law, but reiterated that he opposes altering the controversial legislation, which enshrines Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people.

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.

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.

The meeting 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.

“The team should bring forward its conclusions within a few days and promise quick and efficient implementation,” Kara added.

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.

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meets with Sheikh Muafak Tariff, spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (L) and other Druze leaders at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 27, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

While most opposition has come from outside his coalition, Netanyahu has faced internal pressure to give the Druze some sort of special status in recognition of their contributions to the state, which include serving in the military.

But the prime minister said Sunday at a cabinet meeting that their complaints against the law were unfounded.

“Nothing in this law violates your rights as equal citizens of the State of Israel, and nothing prejudices the special status of the Druze community in Israel. The people of Israel, and I am part of it, love and cherish you. We greatly value our partnership and our alliance,” he said.

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.

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)

The nation-state 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.

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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