JERUSALEM — Retired Brigadier General Amal Asad never imagined he’d become the nemesis of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and Asad were both born into the new State of Israel, founded 70 years ago. Netanyahu is 68. Asad is 62. Each served in its army and each lost a brother in battle.
Yoni Netanyahu was famously killed in Entebbe in 1976. Wafa Asad, then 27 and an expectant father, died fighting in Gaza in 1993, “on the day Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn,” Asad says.
Both Netanyahu and Asad are long-time members of the right-wing Likud party that Netanyahu leads.
They could have been pals. “I’m no rebel. I’m not anti-Bibi,” says Asad.
But Asad, an Israeli through and through, is not Jewish. He is Druze. And when Netanyahu recently passed the “Nation-State Law,” a quasi-constitutional Basic Law that Netanyahu claims ensures “the national rights of the Jewish people in its land” but lacks mention of equal rights for all citizens, Asad felt compelled to act—with results that have shaken the Netanyahu government to its foundations.
On August 4, a Tel Aviv rally Asad organized in only two weeks drew around 150,000 people.
High Noon with Netanyahu, it appears, will come in mid-October, when the Israeli parliament opens its winter session and Asad promises to show up with “hundreds of thousands of Israelis making it clear we cannot be ignored.”
Asad (obviously no relation to the infamous Assad family of Syria) looks like a Levantine Jim Mattis: tan, tall, taut and ramrod straight, measured, soft-spoken and generally unsmiling. He drives a Range Rover, the vehicle of choice for retired IDF officers. In person, he is almost ascetic. For the duration of his exclusive two-hour interview with The Daily Beast at a suburban Tel Aviv branch of Arcaffe, a high-end chain, he sipped at a single iced coffee.
Israel’s Druze belong to an enigmatic Abrahamic monotheistic religion and ethnic group that is intensely loyal to the state. Druze men joined Jews fighting against the Arab League in 1948, in what turned into Israel’s War of Independence. They have served in every army rank except army chief of staff, and are distinguished across the board in Israeli society as top architects, engineers, poets, and diplomats, among others professions.
The Druze have managed the rare feat of integrating completely into Israeli society while remaining, at the same time, a discrete, unique group. Arabs in general form about 20 percent of Israel's population of about 8.5 million, and hold about 20 percent of the Knesset seats. Druze number only about 1.8 percent of the population, a number similar to Christian Arabs. Other minority communities also serve in the army, a crucible of the Israeli experience.
With the exception of the Druze, Circassians and Bedouins, Israeli Arabs are exempt from the military draft, but they are allowed to volunteer for either military or national service. A small but growing number do, especially among Arab Christians, seeing their participation in the national rite of passage as an entry point to the majority culture. But no other minority in Israel has a position comparable to that of the Druze, despite their tiny numbers.
Then came the Nation-State Law’s hasty ratification. Netanyahu’s insistence on passing his flagship piece of legislation through the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in the final hours of the Knesset’s summer session surprised even members of his own coalition: the language was softened until it garnered just enough votes to squeeze by at 3:00 a.m. on July 20.
Netanyahu hailed it as “a defining moment in the history of the state.”
Ten days later, a triumphant Netanyahu rhetorically addressed questions about the law’s purpose at a cabinet meeting. “What is the meaning of national rights?” he asked. “They define the flag, the national anthem, the language and, of course, the fact that one of the basic goals of the state is the in-gathering of exiles of our people and their absorption here in the land of Israel. This is the meaning of the Zionist vision.”
It is unclear what practical purpose Netanyahu was addressing, since few doubt Israel’s purpose as a place of refuge for Jews.
Neither is Israel’s flag or anthem in question, yet Netanyahu explained that “there are suggestions that we should change the flag and the anthem in the name of ‘equality.’”
Adding that there is opposition to the “nation-state” idea in many countries, “but first of all in the State of Israel" he said this is "something that undermines the foundation of our existence. For this reason, the attacks from Leftist circles that define themselves as Zionists are absurd and reveal the depths to which the Left has fallen.”
“Me, a left-winger?” Asad asks rhetorically and with evident astonishment as we chatted over his iced coffee. “I am a ‘hater of Israel’? He’s going to tag me with that sticker?”
Indeed, Netanyahu’s constant references to foreign or leftist intervention have convinced Asad, among others, that the law is nothing more that a cheap pre-electoral ploy.
But its controversial clause stating that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” seems to annul the right of non-Jews who would like to actualize their right of national self-determination in Israel.
In Asad’s view, this law, if left on the books, will undo the state.
Among its provisions, Asad believes that the one stating that “the State views the development of Jewish communities as a national value,” omitting any reference to mixed or non-Jewish population centers, contravenes Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founding document, that guarantees equality for all citizens.
It’s an irreconcilable dispute, and it may determine Israel’s next elections.
Asad describes his family as "the perfect Israeli family—two boys, two girls” and admits with a smile that his wife’s relatively recent turn towards religious observance has caused some tension in the otherwise secular nucleus. His youngest daughter, Reem, 24, a civil engineering graduate from the Technion, Israel’s MIT, is about to get married.
Asad left the IDF almost 20 years ago as a 43-year-old brigadier general. His precipitous rise in the military culminated with a stint in the Israeli security establishment’s holy of holies, the fortress-like army headquarters in Tel Aviv where he commanded all of Israel’s multi-branched security coordination vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
During the huge August 4 rally in Tel Aviv, there was a moment when, alone on stage, Asad recited lines from Israel’s Declaration of Independence verbatim, apparently by heart. “The State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
A hush fell over the crowd.
Asad’s rally concluded with a lineup of “enough retired generals to launch three military coups,” in the words of analyst Anshel Pfeffer. Among them were former army chiefs-of-staff, former heads of the Shin Bet internal security service, and former police chiefs, none particularly left-wing, lined up on stage belting out the national anthem. Some were crying.
Asad says that when friends ask “why do you have to carry this struggle, the hue and the cry, why bear the accusations you’re an ‘Israel-hater’?” he replies,“I’m bearing it because I am an Israeli. I am speaking as an Israeli.”
“I educated generations of soldiers like my own kids, I taught them what I want them to teach their children. What can I tell them now?”
“This law will be voided even at the cost of toppling Bibi’s government,” Asad says, with the confidence of a guy used to being heard. “It will be changed, fixed or repealed, but as it is, this law will not stand.”
The funny thing is, unlike Netanyahu’s foreign bogeymen, Asad does not oppose the notion of a Nation-State Law as such, but he wants “a law that defines the nation-state for all.”
Like Netanyahu’s parliamentary opposition, Asad, who disdains politics and rejects the suggestion he run for office, favors turning the Declaration of Independence with its explicit declaration of equality into an Israeli constitution.
“Any Israeli citizen who was born and raised and lives in the state of Israel is a citizen equal to any other, and that’s it,” he says. “That has to be the basis of everything. What bothers me is what is absent from this law: any mention of equality. I don’t want to be in any position lesser than that of Jews, but at the same time I don’t want to be granted a higher status than that of anybody else.”
The Druze sense of betrayal following ratification of the Nation-State Law exploded into public view within hours, when three Druze members of the Knesset, representing parties from the right to the left, filed a Supreme Court petition to invalidate its offending sections.
Asad, for his part, felt “the government knifing me in the back.”
As July 20 dawned, and with it the law’s significance outside of the corridors of power, embarrassed ministers scrambled. Less than a day after casting their votes in favor of the measure, Naftali Bennett, the extreme right-wing minister of education, and Moshe Kahlon, the centrist minister of finance, apologized for the affront caused to Druze citizens.
Since then Israel has been exposed to the spectacle of a major law whose authors’ downplay its importance. The minister of justice pooh-poohed “what is left of it” after years of parliamentary wrangling. The attorney general issued a placating statement describing the law as merely “declarative.”
By any standard, the Nation State law’s text is clumsy and amateurish. Clause 4, for instance, is self-cancelling. It states that Israel’s only official language is Hebrew, with Arabic relegated to an indeterminate “special status.” The next line reads: “This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect”— when Arabic was an official language.
The law is widely understood to be a symbolic triumph Netanyahu plans to present to his political base. With elections scheduled for 2019, he wants to draw back any voters spooked by a recent police recommendation he be served with an indictment on corruption charges, or any contemplating bolting for Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which champions West Bank settlements, or Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-line Yisrael Beitenu.
But the fear looms that the vaguely worded law could be used, or abused, as a legal cudgel by racists who want to deny basic housing rights to Arabs, for example, or to refuse to provide government services in Arabic.
In the days after the law’s passage, the first whispers of insurrection ever heard in Israel rang out as a handful of infuriated Druze officers posted their intent to quit the army as a protest against the law.
Jewish soldiers, some of whom served under Druze commanders killed in battle, started posting mortified apologies on Facebook.
While Netanyahu kept silent, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli army chief of staff, was forced to issue an extraordinary statement that seemed to remove the military from the new law’s jurisdiction.
As “the people’s army, whose mandate it is to safeguard the security of the people of Israel and win wars, we are bound to uphold human dignity, regardless of ethnicity, religion and gender,” Eisenkot insisted. “It shall always be so.”
“Absolutely correct,” Asad says. “It was brave and it reflects real military cohesion. It could have come a few days earlier.”
Netanyahu eventually formed the cumbersomely titled “Ministerial Committee on Druze, Circassian and Minority Community Members who serve in the Security Forces Affairs,” with the announced aim of offering financial incentives that could remedy “impediments Druze and Circassian communities face in housing and employment.”
Asad’s response to Netanyahu’s attempt to distinguish between nationals who serve or do not serve in the military is blistering.
He believes in national service for all and military service for the able, but it is not, in his words, a criterion for citizenship.
“You can’t catalogue people,” he says. “And you can’t run a country for a handful of primary voters.”
Whatever the case, Netanyahu appears to be speaking a language alien to that of other Israelis.
In the most recent episode of a popular podcast, “Small Talk,” host Yonatan Reguer started discussing the Nation-State-Law with his guest, news anchor Shibel Karmi Mansour, who is Druze, by asking the question “Were you offended, I mean, everyone was offended, but were you personally offended?”
Mansour, a nationally-renowned newsman, demurred. He explained that he does not respond in a personal way to public events. But he had no problem sharing “what I hear from young Druze” which can be summed up as pain, bewilderment and anger so strong they are causing “an existential crisis” within the community.
Mansour was born in Usfiye, the same northern Galilee town Asad is from, but he has lived in Tel Aviv for many years. In one personal aside, he said that the law conflicts absolutely with his lived experience, in which “it simply doesn’t matter. No one cares I’m Druze. It’s just not there.”
Netanyahu is known among Israelis by two shorthand sobriquets: “Mr. Security,” for his emphasis on Israel’s military defenses, and “The Magician,” for his unfaltering, sometimes shameless manipulation of the political system. But the Nation-State Law has put the fundamental assumptions behind each of those nicknames in doubt.
Mr. Security is opposed by almost the entire cadre of Israel’s security establishment.
The Magician blundered and is stumbling to find a way out.
Netanyahu, a politician who has proved himself a master at articulating and amplifying Israelis’ worst fears, now confronts Asad, a military man who has tapped into an existential vein: who it is Israelis believe themselves to be.
So far, seven legal challenges to the new law have been served at the Israeli Supreme Court. The Nation-State Law is defined as a Basic Law, one of the statutory laws meant to guide jurisprudence into the future. It can be overturned by an absolute majority of the Knesset (it passed with only 62 out of 120 seats) or the court can deem the law, or parts of it, in conflict with the nation’s “basic principles.”
“People aren’t dumb,” Asad says. The support he has received “shows that ideas matter. They can see than anyone disagreeing with Bibi is trashed as a traitor. They’re not buying it.”