An Alliance Annulled
Netanyahu has antagonized Israel’s most loyal Arab allies and opened a new front in the country’s culture wars.
YARKA, Israel—In 1973, Druze-Israeli paratrooper Salah Salah was caught in a snow storm on Mount Hermon near Israel’s border with Syria. It was the height of the Yom Kippur War and Salah was among those defending the isolated, but strategically critical, Israeli outpost from Syrian attacks. Commando leader Yoni Netanyahu ordered Salah and his five comrades to walk down the mountain. Salah’s toes turned blue.
“I was sure I would die but thought, ‘Whatever happens, God will decide.’ I never questioned my privilege of serving my country,” said Salah, who was rescued by a helicopter with his unit and brought to a hospital to recover. As soon as he was well, Salah returned to duty. On missions, Salah translated Arabic to Hebrew for his Jewish Israeli comrades.
In mid-July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoni’s younger brother, passed what’s known as the nation-state law. Non-Jewish minorities in Israel, including the Druze, were outraged. The law states that Jews have the unique right to self-determination in Israel. It downgrades Arabic from an official language. It makes no mention of democracy, human rights, or equality between the Jewish majority and the 1.85 million Arabs who comprise one-fifth of the country’s population. The nation-state law was approved by a razor-thin majority of 62 votes in the 120-seat parliament on July 19 at 3 a.m., just before the Knesset left for its three-month summer recess.
For the Druze, it threatens to “deteriorate our situation, which we cannot let happen,” said Salah, quietly. Salah and several other Druze Israeli military veterans are spearheading a protest movement against the nation-state law, which they argue violates the very fabric of democracy in the country they helped to build. They’ve garnered massive support from Jewish Israelis, including heavyweight Israeli human rights groups—such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and BTselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories—as well as right-wing politicians within Netanyahu’s own coalition who see the government’s insult to the Druze as a grave misstep.
The Druze are an Arabic-speaking monotheistic religious minority. They live throughout the Levant region, from southern Syria to Jordan. In Israel, they number around 150,000 and live mostly in bucolic villages in the northern Galilee. Most of Israel’s Druze have long been publicly patriotic. Unlike their Israeli Palestinian neighbors, they are drafted alongside Jewish Israelis into the Israel Defense Forces and serve in some of the most elite military units. Fully integrated into the fabric of Israeli society, Druze can be found in the leadership of media companies and serve in the Knesset.
While the drafters of the nation-state law say it merely enshrines the Israel’s religious character, its detractors say it has opened a new chapter in Israel’s long-running and searing identity crisis, a drawn-out battle between the Israelis who believe their country, as a democracy, should embrace the values of universal pluralism and those who believe it should be exclusively Jewish.
“We never believed they would throw us away like that, like dogs,” said Maimoon Azmi, a reserve commander in Israel’s Home Front Command and another one of the organizers of the growing Druze-led protest movement against the law. Azmi is from Isfiya, a Druze village in northern Israel, and said he has proudly served in the Israeli Army for two decades. What makes the law so dangerous, he said, is that it codifies what many complain has been the tacit understanding for years: that the nation’s Druze, Christian, Circassian, Muslim, and other non-Jewish citizens are second-class citizens in the Jewish State, deprived of equal access to education and housing opportunities.
On the night of Aug. 4, Azmi joined more than 50,000 opponents of the law in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The crowd included elderly Druze sheikhs in cylindrical white hats and tusk-like white mustaches, Druze and Jewish men and women, as well as Jewish Israeli former members of the defense establishment. Protestors sporadically erupted in the chants, “Democracy!” “Equality!” and “Bibi, go home!”
Baha Habish, a 30-year-old Druze protestor in stonewashed jeans, said that the irony of the law is that Israel, a country founded largely by refugees bearing the scars of the Holocaust, is opening the door for the persecution of others. “We’re not mercenaries for hire; we’re not servants,” he said. “Druze, too, were persecuted by extremists. That’s where the connection ultimately lies.”
In the weeks since the law was passed, Druze Knesset members and community leaders have conducted marathon meetings behind closed doors with the prime minister. The community has issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu: Nullify or amend the law, or the Druze may need to reassess what they call their “blood covenant” with Israel, so-called in part because more than 500 Druze Israelis have lost their lives defending the state since its birth in 1948. Already, at least two high-ranking Druze military officials and a reservist Druze physician have resigned from the IDF in protest. And Druze lawmakers have filed several petitions in the High Court of Justice, claiming the law violates their basic human rights.
Some of Netanyahu’s critics have seized on the moment to try to undermine the prime minister. “I love you, my Druze brothers,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing Jewish Home party, posted on Facebook on Aug. 1. While Bennett supports the nation-state law, he now claims he takes issue with the way it was passed. “We were wrong, and we need to fix it,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, claimed during a July 26 interview on Army Radio.
As criticism mounts, Netanyahu both defended the law and tried to mollify his critics. “You are describing genuine feelings and we must find a solution,” Netanyahu told local Druze council leaders in a meeting at the Knesset on July 29, without offering further answers.
It’s not only Druze who are upset. Arab members of the Knesset have also responded in outrage and filed their own legal petitions with the courts. On July 28, Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab member of the Zionist Union party alliance and a beloved sports journalist, resigned from the Knesset, announcing in a televised interview that he was escaping “the sinking ship” that had become Israel’s democracy. “When my 1-year-old grandson will one day ask me how I fought this law, I want to be able to tell him that I wasn’t part of the conspiracy to destroy Israel’s minorities, that I fought,” he later said.
Bahloul suspects Netanyahu’s passing of the nation-state law was a political move to rile up his far-right base. After all, he notes, the prime minister is facing corruption charges and an approaching 2019 election. “It’s an apartheid law … and one that could cause a civil rebellion,” Bahloul warned.
Surveys by the Coalition Against Racism in Israel, an umbrella organization of dozens of anti-discrimination groups, report that Israelis have seen racist incidents on the rise since the 2015 election. When the polls opened in March 2015, Netanyahu made a last-ditch, and ultimately successful, attempt at clinching the premiership by posting a Facebook video warning that “Arabs were heading in droves” to the ballots.
That type of rhetoric hasn’t gone away. In at least two widely publicized incidents this summer, Arab families were denied entry to public swimming pools. In June, hundreds of Jewish protesters, accompanied by public officials, flooded the streets of the northern town of Afula to protest the sale of a home to an “undesirable” Arab family.
“Things are getting worse on the [official] level, and we’re seeing its effects on the ground more and more,” said Raghad Jaraisy, a lawyer and the director of the director of the Arab minority rights unit at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “Israelis can now say, ‘we discriminate and we’re proud of it.’”
And yet the law could ultimately backfire for Netanyahu. A July 30 survey by Walla, a news website, shows that self-identifying centrist Israelis are almost equally split in regard to the nation-state law, with roughly 49 percent in favor and 45 percent against. With the country deeply divided and Netanyahu’s coalition in near-constant crisis, those center voters are a “heated battleground” constituency, says Tel Aviv-based public-opinion analyst Dahlia Scheindlin.
But Scheindlin also says that the questions around Israel’s democracy, the nation-state law, and the state’s marginalization of minorities in Israel proper ignores the larger context: Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Fifty-one years after conquering the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, the Israeli military still exercises direct rule, both in the form of counterterrorism and the regular abuse of civilians’ human rights.
“Israeli democracy is fundamentally breached by being an occupier,” explained Scheindlin. “It’s easy to ignore that if you’re talking about a more limited understanding of Israel, but it allows people to accept deeper injustices within the Green Line,” she added, referencing the pre-1967 borders.
And Yohanan Plesner, the director of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Jerusalem, said that Netanyahu likely welcomed the opposition to the nation-state law from the Israeli center and the leftist parties “as a mobilizing and divisive tool that would put him in an ideal situation, as the supporter of Israel as a Jewish state, and the others as opposing the Jewish state. But he probably didn’t anticipate the backlash from the Druze community.”