The decision facing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is really quite simple: either do what’s best for the country or just tread water and survive another year in office. The first choice requires courage; the second demands nothing beyond the competence of any third-rate politician.

Any guesses as to which path our prime minister will choose? Hint: At the very last second, just before the Knesset was about to disperse in May, Netanyahu chose to expand his coalition by throwing a lifeline to a sinking Kadima rather than risk facing the voters.

Indeed, for all his elite commando past, Netanyahu is not known for his bravery on the political field. Unlike Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, another Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance) veteran who determinedly set out to find a realistic replacement for the Tal Law which expires at the end of the month, Netanyahu would much rather find another fudge that would allow haredi yeshiva students to continue to enjoy their widespread draft exemption.

Despite having the largest government coalition in Israeli history, Netanyahu is refusing to act as a leader should. Although the prime minister is perfectly aware that the present model of male haredi evasion of IDF service is morally indefensible and their non-participation in the civilian labor force economically unsustainable, the prime minister is refusing to seize the opportunity granted by the Tal Law’s expiration.

By snatching at any feeble excuse, such as the need to widen the scope of the Plesner Committee to include Israeli Arabs, Netanyahu is flailing around, seeking to avoid annoying his haredi coalition partners whose only concerns are their narrow, sectarian interests and not the greater good of the country.

THE ISSUE of national service for Israeli Arabs is important, but then so is ensuring that Israel’s Arab citizens receive equal funding to their Jewish counterparts. It’s hard to demand from one sector of the population that they play an equal role in society when they receive less in return.

For example, back in 2007 the government set a target of having Israeli-Arabs make up 10 percent of state employees by this year. Given that Israeli Arabs constitute more than 20% of the population, this should not have proved too difficult, but today, Israeli Arabs only comprise 8% of state employees. And in the private sector it’s worse: only 1.3% of Arab graduates in high-tech fields actually work in this sector, the majority have to move into teaching.

In fact, little has changed since the Or Report into the October 2000 riots, when Justice Or noted: “The Arab citizens of Israel live in a reality in which they experience discrimination as Arabs. This inequality has been documented in a large number of professional surveys and studies, has been confirmed in court judgments and government resolutions, and has also found expression in reports by the state comptroller and in other official documents.”

IRONICALLY, BY looking to fudge rather than engineer a far-reaching societal change that would bring the haredi sector into the Israeli mainstream, Netanyahu could actually be endangering his political position to a greater degree than a rift with his haredi allies would cause.

Last week Netanyahu eulogized his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir, the man Netanyahu rivals for the unwanted title of Israel’s worst prime minister. Under Shamir’s premiership, no chance for peace was ever seriously engaged, and his scuttling of Shimon Peres’ 1987 London Agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein was a disastrous mistake.

Throughout his premiership, to the exclusion of all else, Shamir concentrated on building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ploughing much-need economic resources into a folly whose final price is looking more and more likely to be the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.

But unlike Netanyahu, Shamir was a man of his word. He made no pretense of being interested in peace with the Arabs; he would certainly have never made a speech along the lines of Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech, promising to work for a two-state solution, even if, like Netanyahu, he had no intention of turning the speech into reality.

However, there is one great similarity between the two men: both ignored the feelings of “the man on the street.” In the end, it was not the first intifada which brought down Shamir’s government and caused the election victory of Yitzhak Rabin, who truly changed Israeli society despite a razor-thin majority in the Knesset, but rather growing public discontent with the economic incompetence and atmosphere of sleaze which surrounded Shamir’s Likud party.

As Saturday night’s demonstrations in Tel Aviv showed, the country’s silent majority has finally woken up over the issue of haredi draft-dodging. If Netanyahu does not begin to address this issue with seriousness it demands, he will pay a heavy political price the next time the country goes to the polls.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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