Bibi’s locust years.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Eugene Kandel is the economic adviser Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu trusts
most. The OECD is the exclusive rich nations’ club he is proudest of belonging
Both warn that unless Haredi men join the work force in significant
numbers, Israel will not be able to sustain its vibrant first-world economy.
They foresee a gradual slide to third-world standards and, ultimately, even
difficulty in funding basic defense needs.
Their dire warnings are echoed
by Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.
Steinitz predicts “critical trouble” for the economy “in less than two decades”
unless the ultra-Orthodox Haredim go to work.
The numbers are astounding.
If present trends continue, Haredim will increase from around 8.5 percent of the
population to 17.5 percent by 2030. And if, as is the case today, 60 percent
don’t work and 60 percent live below the poverty line, the economy will be
stretched beyond the breaking point. No government will be able to go on making
welfare payments to burgeoning numbers of unemployed Torah scholars and fund
other basic social and defense needs.
Already 32 percent of
kindergarten-aged children are Haredim. This means that the 7,500 Haredi teens
eligible for this year’s army draft will become 13,000 by 2025. The issue goes
well beyond the IDF’s manpower needs or the need for secular Israelis to feel a
more equitable sharing of the defense burden.
Haredim serving in the army
or performing civilian national service is first and foremost a question of
saving the economy.
Of those who do serve, around 90 percent join the
workforce. In the army or national service they learn skills they can put to use
in civilian jobs and, more importantly, they can take jobs because, having
already served, they don’t have to pretend to be full-time Torah scholars to
dodge the draft – as tens of thousands of those who haven’t served
A law regularizing Haredi army service and the introduction
of a core curriculum in Haredi schools would revolutionize Israel’s manpower
reserves and unleash the country’s economic potential.
anomalous state of affairs, instead of tackling the problem, the Zionist state
seems to be funding its own downfall.
It fuels the growth of a massive
non-Zionist Haredi enterprise, undermining the morale of serving secular
Israelis and increasing the financial burden on the state. Breaking this vicious
circle is crucial for the country’s long-term well-being, some might say
Netanyahu knows all of this better than most. He is a former
finance minister and, in the current government, the minister for economic
strategy. The national unity pact he made with Kadima produced a rare secular
governing majority and gave him a golden opportunity to make the necessary
Yet he chose not to. With so much at stake, he chose a narrow
political alliance with the Haredi parties over the national
Whether the Israeli electorate punishes him for it is an open
question. History, however, is unlikely to forgive him.
In the three and
a half years he has been in power, Netanyahu has done nothing on the big
strategic issues. The major achievements he can point to are free kindergartens
and cheaper cell phones. There has been nothing on the peace process, no meeting
of minds with the US on Iran, no change of the electoral system, no equality of
military service, no social reform of note. As his hero Winston Churchill might
have put it, these have been “locust years,” wasted time “the locust hath
It is all reminiscent of Netanyahu’s first term. Then, too, there
was a sense that things were going nowhere and that he had sold out to Haredi
allies. The slogan then Labor leader Ehud Barak used to oust him in 1999 was
“everything is stuck.” Natan Sharansky’s Russian immigrant Yisrael b’Aliya party
made inroads with the cry: “Not Shas control, Nash (our) control.” And while
Barak was putting together his coalition, demonstrators shouted, “Anyone but
This time round, Netanyahu’s dependence on the ultra-Orthodox
Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi Haredim led to bizarre zigzagging in the
negotiations with Kadima over Haredi army service. First, he set up a committee
under Kadima’s Yohanan Plesner, then, under pressure from Shas, he dissolved
A few days later, after a big Tel Aviv demonstration for equal
service, he accepted Plesner’s report as a basis for negotiation.
and former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon seemed to be on the verge of a deal,
when, again under pressure from the Haredim, Netanyahu backed away. Plesner
proposed allowing Haredim to defer service until age 22, at which time, except
for a select few, it would become compulsory. Ya’alon initially seemed to accept
this, but then came back with a counter proposal, deferring service till age 26,
and making it voluntary, which is tantamount to granting wholesale exemption to
the entire Haredi population and perpetuating the no service-no work
With the pullout of Kadima, Netanyahu’s coalition is down to
66, and unlikely to pass a budget by the end of the year. This will probably
lead to new elections in the first quarter of next year.
By that time,
the disoriented political center comprising the imploding Kadima, the embryonic
Yair Lapid party, other budding parties or alliances with ex-Kadima leader Tzipi
Livni and possibly even former prime minister Ehud Olmert will have taken
Labor, buoyed by a new round of social justice demonstrations,
will mount a challenge based on demands for social reform.
will be fought over everything Netanyahu hasn’t done. The problem for his rivals
though is that, according to the latest polls, far and away most Israelis still
think he is the best man for the job.