Politics: The other Tal Law committee

While the Keshev Committee works on a solution, the real decisions are being between the PM and ultra-Orthodox parties.

June 28, 2012 22:02
Haredi man overlooking IDF ceremony

Haredi man, IDF ceremony Tal Law Keshev IDF390. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

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.

The haredi 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 benefits.

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 principle.

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.

The 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.

As a 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.

The political 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 16 months.

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.

Netanyahu’s 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 hustings.

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 Kadima.

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 Liberman’s intent.

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 matter.

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 possible.”

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.

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