Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily walked out of a meeting with Druze leaders on Thursday evening when a prominent Druze activist and former IDF brigadier general angrily criticized the controversial nation-state law passed last month.
The tense meeting, which included ministers Yariv Levin and Ayoub Kara, came two days before a planned mass protest in Tel Aviv organized by Druze activists and fellow opponents of the nation-state law in its current iteration.
At the meeting, held in the IDF headquarters compound in Tel Aviv, Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal As’ad told Netanyahu the Druze weren’t interested in a new benefits package, but in feeling like part of the nation.
Netanyahu then stood up, insisted he would not allow disrespect of an Israeli prime minister or the state, and suggested the meeting continue in his office in a smaller forum that included the community top spiritual leader, Sheikh Muafak Tarif, and mayors of Druze towns, but without As’ad and other Druze former top IDF officers who are leading the campaign against the law.
According to As’ad, who spoke to Hadashot television news after the meeting, Tarif refused the smaller meeting, and Netanyahu left the room.
The Druze leaders then walked from the Kirya compound to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where preparations for the Saturday night demonstrations are already underway.
Netanyahu was apparently angered by a recent Facebook post from As’ad in which he accused the prime minister of leading Israel on a trajectory of becoming an “apartheid state,” and called the law “evil and racist.”
Initial reports from the Prime Minister’s Office had indicated that As’ad repeated the apartheid claim during the sit-down with Netanyahu, sparking the walk-out, but As’ad said late Thursday those reports were wrong.
“The word ‘apartheid’ was not used during the meeting with the prime minister at all,” he said in a Facebook post. “The solution to the crisis is in the hands of the prime minister and I’m confident he can solve it if he wants.”
As’ad, a former infantry commander and veteran of multiple wars who lost a brother in fighting in the Gaza Strip, in the past expressed support for the Likud party. He has been active in initiatives to commemorate the sacrifices of Druze IDF soldiers.
Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid charged in a tweet Thursday that Netanyahu “has once again shown that what he wants is not a nation-state law, but a fight over the nation-state law” for ostensible narrow political gain.
The meeting between Druze leaders and the prime minister followed two weeks of anger and protests among the Druze community over the Knesset’s refusal to include any mention of equality for minorities in the nation-state law, which attempts to enshrine Israel’s character as a Jewish state.
While Netanyahu met the Druze leaders, the law’s original sponsor, Likud MK Avi Dichter, faced the community’s rage at a ceremony to honor Druze veterans at a college in the northern town of Carmiel.
“You dog, you racist,” one man shouted at Dichter, bursting onto the auditorium stage. The man was later identified as Amir Khnifess, head of the newly-formed Forum Against the Nation-state Law.
Dichter’s security guards attempted to intervene, but the lawmaker, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, pushed the guards away.
“Look at these kids,” Khnifess yelled at him, pointing to the young veterans. Khnifess told Dichter he “should be ashamed” and “shouldn’t appear before the Druze.”
Khnifess then reportedly called Dichter a “Nazi,” leading the lawmaker to shout back, “I won’t be called Nazi. I lost family to the Nazis, when they murdered my mother’s family. I’m called Avraham Moshe for my grandfather who was murdered by Nazis.”
Dichter’s encounter took place at a ceremony handing out scholarships to 80 Druze IDF veterans from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews at Carmiel’s Ort Braude technical college. The academic scholarships are named for the late Salim Shufi, a Druze former member of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit.
פעילים בני העדה הדרוזית התפרצו לנאומו של ח״כ אבי דיכטר בטקס הענקת מלגות לימודים לסטודנטים בני העדה בכרמיאל. דיכטר, מיוזמי חוק הלאום, נשאר על הבמה. הפעילים קראו לדיכטר להתבייש ואמרו לסטודנטים שהיה עליהם לסרב לקבל את המילגה @nitzanglusman pic.twitter.com/UZzEJIxDRk
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) August 2, 2018
Khnifess was detained by police after the incident.
In a statement before the Carmiel ceremony, the Fellowship said the meeting between Dichter and Druze veterans would be “an opportunity for open and honest dialogue with the youth of the [Druze] community about the nation-state law and the controversy it has sparked.”
Netanyahu has been trying to placate Druze anger at the new law with a package of benefits.
A concession plan envisions new 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 Wednesday. Support of Druze religious, education, and culture institutes would 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 would 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.
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.
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.