With the issue of haredi enlistment in the army and national service at the top
of the national and political agenda, the State of Israel could be on the brink
of momentous societal change. But the Byzantine politics of the marriage of
convenience that is the current governing coalition could also lead to a messy
divorce, without making any real progress distributing the burden of military
service more fairly across society.
Despite all the declarations and
promises from the political leaders, members of the Keshev Committee (a hebrew
acronym for Promoting Equality in the Burden) and the protest movement against
haredi exemptions from national service, it is the political considerations that
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is weighing behind closed doors which threaten
to stymie the passage of an effective law to increase the numbers of
ultra-Orthodox Jews serving in the army and civilian service.
spiritual and political leadership are adamant that the right for a man to study
Torah if he so wishes must be preserved. Therefore, in negotiations with
coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and the Prime Minister’s Office Liaison
to the Knesset Perach Lerner, and sometimes Netanyahu himself, leaders of the
Shas and United Torah Judaism parties have said in no uncertain terms that they
are unwilling to accept the two central reforms being proposed to the military
and national service draft.
These reforms involve the imposition of
maximum quotas on the number of haredi men able to receive national service
exemptions through full-time yeshiva study, and the imposition of individual
financial sanctions against anyone refusing to serve.
The levying of such
penalties, including the cancellation of housing benefits and municipal tax
breaks, which many members of the haredi community receive, would effectively
amount to a forcible draft of the majority of haredi men of military age, since
they would not be able to support themselves and their families without these
If there is a way out of the political mess, it will most
likely be through a compromise on the terms of the legislation, rather than the
haredi factions making any real concessions on their points of
However galling it might be for the ardent campaigners of the
Camp Sucker movement to watch the ultra-Orthodox political factions have their
cake and eat it too, the truth is that their demands for full equality in the
share of the military burden are somewhat naive.
Their demands, which to
a neutral observer appear entirely just, are nevertheless bumping up against an
entrenched culture and mindset that cannot be changed overnight.
issue here is not even necessarily the extremely high value the haredi world
places on Torah study, but the attitude of the haredi rabbinical leadership
toward protecting their flock and the inclination of the haredi public to adhere
strictly to their rabbis’ instructions.
If the leading rabbis of the
haredi community are not satisfied with the terms of new legislation then they
may instruct men of military age to simply refuse to enlist.
representative of the ultra-Orthodox Edah Haredit organization said at a
“sackcloth and ashes” demonstration this week, if legislation mandating an
obligatory draft is passed into law, the police should be ready to start
collecting haredi men from their houses and yeshivas.
It is for this
reason that Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz and Keshev Committee chairman and Kadima MK
Yohanan Plesner are so insistent on personal financial sanctions against anyone
refusing to serve; as they see sanctions as the only tool that could induce
haredi men to ignore their rabbis’ instructions.
And it is for this
reason that Shas and UTJ are so adamantly opposed to them.
problem for the prime minister is that if he agrees to pass a law that inhibits
the ability of haredi men to learn in yeshiva, he will alienate the haredi
political parties that are currently threatening, in none-too-subtle ways, that
they will refuse to join a Likud led coalition after the next elections, due in
If, on the other hand, he steps away from any meaningful
reform to the IDF draft for the haredi sector, he risks a severe political
backlash at the polls come October 2013.
Kadima sources alluded to this
possibility on Wednesday when they warned that it would not be wise for
Netanyahu to go to a general election on the back of a political surrender to
the haredim on the issue of national service enlistment.
people, for their part, seem, at least publicly, unafraid of facing the
electorate on these terms, and taunted Plesner that if he fails to climb down
from the ladder, the Harvard-educated parliamentarian will end up as an academic
within four months, thereby also alluding to a readiness to go to the
And this public braggadocio appears to confirm the words of a
well-placed source in the United Torah Judaism party, who said this week that
the prime minister has instructed his aides negotiating with the haredi factions
to preserve the political alliance with them rather than appease
In other words, Netanyahu is more concerned about the prospect of
being unable to form a coalition after the next election than he is about the
possibility that Kadima will leave the government and go to the polls over the
issue of haredi enlistment.
And it is also worth remembering that back in
January, before the Tal Law was struck down by the High Court of Justice, the
prime minister announced that he would ask his cabinet to approve another
five-year extension of that unloved legislation.
He promptly did an
abrupt about-turn following public outrage at the decision, but such an attitude
does not give the impression that Netanyahu feels any sense of urgency to
address the issue.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has made it
clear that his party will not vote in favor of any bill which does not mandate
obligatory service for all at age 18. On Thursday, Yisrael Beytenu withdrew from
the Keshev Committee because the panel decided to encourage, but not require,
Israeli Arabs to do national service.
Since Yisrael Beytenu’s conditions
will certainly not be met, Netanyahu has left room for the party to oppose the
final legislation while remaining in the government, which appears to be
But to a certain extent, Netanyahu’s political
considerations vis-a-vis the haredi factions render the Keshev Committee
somewhat irrelevant to the final outcome of legislation on the
Although Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef acknowledges in
private that change is coming to the status of yeshiva students, he is
nevertheless adamant that everything be done “to minimize the damage to the
Torah world,” in the words of a Shas insider close to Yosef.
Or, as a
source close to Interior Minister Eli Yishai said, “Our heads are going to be
cut off, but we’re doing everything we can to ensure it is done as elegantly as
At the same time, Shas has indicated that the party might be
willing to consider financial sanctions against yeshivot that fail to live up to
quotas set by the new law for national-service recruits.
Plesner and his
fellow committee members could come up with some fine recommendations to address
the inequalities in the share of the military burden. But if the prime minister
is to all intents and purposes wedding himself to the traditional Likud-haredi
alliance, they might not see the light of day, and Shas’s kippa-sporting heads
will be saved from the chopping block.
That said, for Netanyahu to ignore
the Keshev panel proposals completely would expose his appointment of the
committee as a complete sham from the outset, and this may aggravate even
further the electoral fallout at the polls.
Although the prime minister’s
alliance with the haredi parties would remain intact, his other coalition
partners and the public could have a difficult time accepting the machinations
of the other Tal Law committee of Elkin, Lerner, Shas and UTJ.