JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s new “nation-state” law has provoked anger among members of its most integrated minority, the Druze, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek corrective legislation.
Netanyahu has defended the law, which declares that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country, from fierce criticism at home and abroad.
But his conservative government appears to have been blindsided by the response from the Druze community, even though parliament passed the law on July 19 after years of heated debate in the Knesset.
In a further effort to calm tensions, Netanyahu convened a meeting with Druze community leaders in Tel Aviv late on Thursday but it was cut short because one of the participants, a retired senior military officer, had harshly criticized the legislation, Israeli media reported.
At a separate event in northern Israel, a Druze man had to be forcibly removed by police after he confronted and heckled one of the law’s main proponents, lawmaker Avi Dichter of Netanyahu’s Likud party who had started giving a speech.
Leaders of Israel’s main Arab minority denounced the law while Turkey called it racist and the European Union expressed concern. Netanyahu took this in his stride, saying it was needed to fend off Palestinian challenges to Jewish self-determination.
But criticism from Druze, who are also Arabs and practise an offshoot of Islam, has had more effect even though they make up only 1.3 percent of Israel’s citizenry.
“We see it as a discriminatory law which doesn’t give expression to our citizenship,” said Rafik Halabi, one of a delegation of Druze leaders who met Netanyahu.
“We told the prime minister unequivocally ... we won’t be able to live in a state where part of its population, especially such a loyal and good population, feels excluded,” he said, after the delegation also met President Reuven Rivlin.
Druze communities are scattered around the region, including in Syria and Lebanon. In Israel, Druze men are drafted by the military unlike other Arab minorities, who often identify as Palestinian. Druze are also active in mainstream governance and media in Israel.
The law, which downgrades Arabic from an official language on a par with Hebrew and deems only Jewish settlement as a national priority, has prompted announcements by several Druze that they would no longer serve in uniform. Israel’s top general, Gadi Eizenkot, responded with a call not to politicize the military.
Netanyahu hastily set up a committee including ministers, officials and Druze community leaders to propose new legislation that will address their grievances and ease tensions. These changes appear designed to accommodate the Druze primarily, and not the much larger Israeli Arab minority.
“The team reached an historic outline that constitutes a revolution in the legal status of minority community members who serve in the security forces, particularly the Druze community,” Netanyahu’s media adviser said in a statement.
Akram Hasson, a Druze member of the coalition party Kulanu, said the work would take time. “There is still a long way to go,” he told Israel Radio.
Druze leaders are divided over whether the proposals will calm the tensions. A large rally by the Druze and their supporters is planned at a main Tel Aviv plaza on Saturday.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, one of the committee members, said legislation would be presented when parliament returns for its winter session in mid October.
“To my delight, the Druze community has accepted the outline. We have agreed to work on the details and bring a set proposal to a vote,” he told the Ynet web site.
This would enshrine the Druze’s special status within Israeli society, recognize their service to the state and boost funding for their towns, villages and community institutions.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party also praised the Druze.
“The Druze community does not have to prove to anybody its loyalty to the state of Israel or the strength of the bond between us. Seventy years of statehood prove this beyond any doubt,” he wrote on Facebook.
Druze opposition lawmaker Salah Saed of the Zionist Union said he was not sure the crisis had been averted. “I have read the new proposal and I can live with it, but the problem is that I don’t believe the prime minister,” Saed said, fearing Israel could face early elections before the legislation is finalized.
Elections are set for November 2019.
“(Netanyahu) is stringing us along... We will not play into the hands of this government,” Saed added.
Writing by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis, Editing by David Stamp