Analysis from Israel

One of the most disturbing things I’ve read in a long time was Haaretz’s report last Friday that the government has ruled out military aid to Syrian Druse, who are under serious threat from extremist Sunni groups like Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Maybe this is merely a smokescreen, meant to allow Israel to provide aid while retaining plausible deniability. But if the report is true, it’s a horrendous error, both morally and strategically.

Ordinarily, I don’t think Israel has any obligation to prevent potential Mideast massacres. Not only does it have no moral duty to rescue people who for the most part would happily kill us if they could, but even if it did, it lacks the capacity. Israel may be the Mideast’s strongest military power, but it has nowhere near the power necessary to be the region’s policeman.

Nor do I entertain fantasies about creating a friendly Druse statelet to our north, though that idea has some proponents. In an essay in Mosaic Magazine last year, for instance, Ofir Haivry argued that Israel should support “the Christians and Druse of both Lebanon and Syria, and above all the Kurds,” in an effort to forge a bloc of Mideast minorities that could counterbalance both Shi’ites and Sunnis.

But as Dr. Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya noted last week, Israel’s experience with this idea – primarily in Lebanon in the 1980s – hasn’t been encouraging. The region’s other non-Muslim minorities are vastly outnumbered by their Muslim antagonists; they are hampered by being scattered among several different states; and aside from the Kurds, none have even shown any particular desire for independence. Thus just as Christian autonomy in Lebanon couldn’t survive without a continuous Israeli military presence, Druse autonomy in Syria probably couldn’t either, and such a presence wouldn’t be in Israel’s interests. So Syrian Druse would probably do what Lebanese Christians did after Israel left Lebanon in 2000: reach an accommodation with the dominant Sunnis and/or Shi’ites.

But if we can’t expect any lasting gain in the form of a friendly neighbor, why should Israel help the Druse? Quite simply, because their Israeli kinsmen want it, and because those kinsmen are Israel’s most loyal non-Jewish citizens. The community’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Maufak Tarif, the head of the Druse and Circassian Local Councils Forum, Jaber Hamoud, and senior Druse officers in the Israel Defense Forces have all issued pleas for help. Additionally, thousands of ordinary Druse demonstrated over the issue Saturday night.

Refusing to help their relatives – when everyone knows Israel would surely help Jews in a similar situation – would essentially tell the Druse that they will never be anything but second-class citizens, that their decades of loyalty to the state are worth nothing. And that’s not only a moral atrocity, it’s a massive strategic error.

Non-Jews constitute 25 percent of Israel’s population, so it is strategically vital for Israel that they be loyal citizens rather than an irreconcilable fifth column. And the Druse, precisely because of their decades-long loyalty, are seen by other minorities as the test case for whether such loyalty pays. As Tarif put it in a media interview in 2004, “Even the Arabs are constantly saying, ‘the Druse give everything, yet Druse villages are in even worse shape than Arab villages.’”

This doesn’t mean Israel should invade Syria for the Druse’s sake. But the Druse aren’t asking for that. All they have asked is that Israel provide their Syrian kinsmen with the weaponry needed to defend themselves. And that’s well within Israel’s power.

In contrast, Israel’s proposed alternatives are fatuous: According to Haaretz, it asked America to arm the Syrian Druse and hopes Jordan will do so as well.

But years of US promises to aid moderate Sunnis in Syria have produced only paltry amounts of weaponry, and even its aerial campaign against Islamic State has been half-hearted. Washington basically wants nothing to do with the Syrian quagmire, and it is unlikely to ditch this aversion for the sake of the Druse. As for Jordan, it is so averse to intervening in Syria that it initially refused to help even its fellow Sunnis, thereby infuriating its main financial patron, Saudi Arabia. Thus it’s hard to imagine it intervening now on behalf of the Druse, who have hitherto been allied with the Sunni rebels’ nemesis, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Nor are any of the reasons advanced for not arming the Druse convincing. First, the fear that this would provoke extremist groups like Nusra or Islamic State to attack Israel is overblown. All these groups are ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction; they haven’t attacked Israel so far only because they’re too busy fighting on other fronts to want to tangle with Israel as well. And that would remain true even if Israel armed the Druse.

Second, Israel wouldn’t be tilting the Syrian balance of power in Assad’s favor, because the regime has essentially abandoned the Druse to focus on protecting its coastal heartland. Thus despite their former alliance with Assad, the Druse are now unlikely to use their weapons for anything beyond protecting their own villages, leaving Sunni rebels free to pursue their war against Assad as long as they leave Druse areas alone.

Finally, it’s highly unlikely that Syrian Druse would turn any weapons we gave them against us. With a few rare exceptions, Druse in Syria and Lebanon haven’t engaged in anti-Israel attacks the way both Sunnis and Shi’ites have; they allied with Assad and Hezbollah only because they considered the Shi’ite alliance a lesser evil than radical Sunnis.

It is possible that action is unwarranted because the danger to Syrian Druse is being exaggerated. On Saturday, Nusra said its members had violated orders by killing 20 Druse last week and would be punished accordingly; that may indicate that it doesn’t want conflict with the Druse right now.

But if the danger proves real, then Israel must help. To do otherwise would be to betray the trust of Israeli Druse, who have been loyal citizens for 67 years and never before asked anything in return. And that would be both a moral and a strategic catastrophe.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on June 17, 2015

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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