Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said he wished to “empower” Israel’s Druze population and vowed to address the community’s needs and concerns.
The past year has seen the community, considered to be relatively well integrated with Jewish Israelis, express intense misgivings and anger over the passage of a quasi-constitutional law that enshrined Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people.
Druze leaders have lambasted the legislation as creating official discrimination between Jews and non-Jews. Some have warned of a potential rift between the communities that would increase sectarianism and irreversibly damage the fabric of Israeli society.
On the occasion of the Druze holiday of Ziyarat al-Nabi Shu’ayb, Netanyahu said in a statement: “I view empowering the Druze population as very important. We have enacted policies of increased investment in Druze communities in order to minimize gaps and increase equal opportunity.”
He said he was “attuned to your needs, your difficulties, your concerns. I vow to address them thoroughly.”
And he asserted, “You are a part of us and we are a part of you.”
The Israeli Druze, who follow a 1,000-year-old offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, have historically made major contributions to public service in the country, with many serving in the Israel Defense Forces alongside their Jewish countrymen.
But many have expressed disappointment with the law, saying it unnecessarily humiliated them and lessened their place in society.
Since its passage, tens of thousands of Druze have demonstrated against it, and several have filed petitions to have it repealed.
Parties in Netanyahu’s outgoing government received a significantly smaller percentage of the votes in this month’s national elections from most Druze-majority villages in northern Israel than in the 2015 elections, according to results posted on the Central Elections Committee’s website.
While Netanyahu has met with groups of Druze leaders to discuss their concerns about the nation-state law, he has also continued to defend the legislation.
He has contended that the law was necessary to ensure that “Israel remains not just democratic, but also the nation-state of the Jewish people, and of the Jewish people alone.”
But in an apparent attempt to mollify Druze critics, the Prime Minister’s Office has put forward a proposal to anchor in separate legislation the status of the Druze and Circassians, another minority group that serves in high numbers in Israel’s security sector, and provide them and others who defend the state with financial benefits.
Budgets for salaries and education in Druze municipalities are currently on par with Jewish communities, but budgets for infrastructure and development have for decades been some 25% to 40% smaller than those of Jewish towns, according to Rami Zeedan, a professor at the University of Kansas, who has written extensively about the history of Druze in Israel.
The Druze also suffer from a shortage of land to build on, and no new Druze village has been established since the founding of Israel, even though their population has grown tenfold.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.