How Druze activist Eyal Assad influenced the Jewish Nation-State Law

How a tweet by Naftali Bennett prompted Netanyahu to take the crisis with the Druze community seriously.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Druze leaders  (photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Druze leaders
It all started with Assad.
No, not Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator who Israeli sources said murdered hundreds of Druze recently in an effort to regain control of the southern part of his country.
It started with Eyal Assad of the Druze village of Kisra-Samia in the Upper Galilee, who registered some 1,400 people to Bayit Yehudi in the party’s latest membership drive.
Thanks to Eyal Assad, in the little remembered April 2017 Bayit Yehudi leadership race against long-forgotten challenger Yonatan Branski, Naftali Bennett received 100% of the vote in Kisra-Samia and nearby Julis and all but one vote close by in Hurfeish, in results in Druze villages reminiscent of the other Assad’s past elections in Syria.
With such numbers, it is no surprise that when Eyal Assad phones Bennett, he takes the call. The night before the Jewish nation-state bill passed into law, Assad spoke to Bennett at an event hosted by MK Moti Yogev in Nehalim and voiced his concerns. He then was in touch with Bennett and his ally, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, every day for a week.
That led Bennett to surprisingly change his opinion of the government’s passage of the controversial law, which Bennett had enthusiastically supported. In a Wednesday tweet, in referring to the Druze as “our brothers,” he wrote: “It has become clear that the manner in which the Nation-State Law was enacted is very damaging – especially to them and to anyone who has tied his fate to the Jewish state.”
Bennett wrote that the Druze stand shoulder to shoulder with Israeli Jews on the battlefield, and therefore the government of Israel has a responsibility to find a way to heal the rift.
Three days before Bennett’s tweet, Druze MKs Akram Hasson (Kulanu) and Salah Saad (Labor) filed a Supreme Court case against the Nation-State Law, which probably would have been forgotten until the distant January date when the case will be heard by the court.
Netanyahu did even not bother reacting to the court case being filed, in a very long statement at the start of the following morning’s cabinet meeting.
But after Bennett’s tweet, Netanyahu sprang into action and cleared his schedule. Suddenly, he was meeting with Druze leaders three days in a row, appointing his closest adviser, Yoav Horowitz, to head a committee that met virtually nonstop, and drafting a solution promising the Druze what they have been demanding for 70 years.
“Bibi was personally involved in every detail of the agreement we reached,” one of the participants told The Jerusalem Post. “He stopped dealing with everything else and sat with us. He was part of every peep in the agreement.”
When asked why the agreement with the Druze mattered so much to Netanyahu, the participant in the meetings first said, “There is a consensus in Israel on the love for the Druze. Bibi realized he had stepped on a mine.”
But then he sighed and added: “There was also pressure on Netanyahu in his coalition from Bennett.”
This is far from the first time that Netanyahu’s rival for votes on the Right spurred him to take action. Other examples include the Supreme Court override bill in April, the settlement arrangements bill in February 2017, and Netanyahu’s solution for migrant workers that he then opposed after Bennett called it a surrender.
There was Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, whom Netanyahu initially criticized, then backed, following Bennett’s lead, and the June election that was not initiated in March after Bennett warned the prime minister not to initiate an election for personal reasons.
SPEAKING TO the Post Thursday afternoon, hours after his father’s funeral, Assad said he was very satisfied with the agreement Netanyahu reached with Druze leaders. When asked whether he deserves credit for it, Assad said the credit belongs to Bennett and to the spiritual leader of the Druze in Israel, Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, who drafted the agreement with Netanyahu.
“I’d like to think we are after the crisis,” Assad said. “The ball is in the hands of the government to implement the agreement.”
The agreement promised the Druze that they will get their first new village built since before Israel was founded, infrastructure improvements in the current villages, and the easing of what Druze leaders said is their greatest immediate threat: fines issued for illegal construction.
They also got a promise for an amendment to a Basic Law that will guarantee their status. But the amendment will be made to another Basic Law, not the Jewish Nation-State Law, which Netanyahu refused to touch.
Ministerial liaison to the Knesset Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s arm in the parliament, called it a win-win situation for Netanyahu, who gets to tell his voters that not only did he pass a patriotic bill that is the ultimate consensus for his political base, now he will also be able to say he took historic steps to help the Druze that just happened to have been enabled by the Nation-State Law.
A Panels Research poll taken for Walla News this week found that a whopping 85% of Israelis who identify themselves as right-wing supported the bill and only 10% opposed it. That will help Netanyahu build support in his political base.
Netanyahu could have damaged himself in that base, had he been seen as harming the Druze, who are popular across the political map. After he reached the agreement, he is likely to accuse anyone saying he harmed the Druze of being leftists who are out to get him.
It is the perceived elites on the Left that Netanyahu’s base detests. That includes the Supreme Court, which will hear the court case of the left-wing Druze against the Nation-State Law in January, just ahead of when a Knesset election might be held.
Netanyahu can paint the new law as the Right’s response to the Supreme Court overreaching and interfering on issues like migrant workers and settlement outposts. It will also be painted as Israel’s response to UNESCO and other international bodies that sought to deny the Jewishness of the Land of Israel.
If Netanyahu has indeed emerged unscathed from a serious political challenge that hit a raw nerve that could have harmed him, perhaps he will now be able to take advantage of the Knesset’s recess and stop dealing so intensively with politics.
That could free up time for him to focus more on the Assad on the other side of the border.