The unsolvable puzzle of haredi enlistment - analysis

Yet again, the issue of haredi enlistment in the IDF has caused a major political upheaval, and we could yet go to an election over it in three months.

Haredi men protest outside the draft office in Jerusalem on November 28. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi men protest outside the draft office in Jerusalem on November 28.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yet again, the issue of haredi enlistment in the IDF has caused a major political upheaval, and we could yet go to an election over it in three months.
One could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu – after all, the above sentence could have been written at almost any time in 2018, as well. And, in fact, the election that took place only seven weeks ago was called in part because of an impasse on the very issue of haredi enlistment.
Moreover, the matter has been on the political table for 20 years, since the Tal Commission was formed to examine the historical, blanket exemption haredi yeshiva students received from military service since Israel’s establishment – and more or less decided to continue that exemption.
The mass social protests of 2011 had a subsection called “Camp Sucker,” in which self-proclaimed “suckers” – people who served in the IDF and did reserve duty – protested that the haredi sector did not have to do the same.
Then in 2012, the Supreme Court declared the “Tal Law” unconstitutional, and the Knesset had to pass a new law. With Shas and UTJ in the coalition, the government was unable to reach a compromise (sound familiar?), and a bill to dissolve the Knesset passed a first reading before the now-defunct Kadima Party swooped in to form a massive unity coalition.
But even with 94 seats, they could not manage to reach compromises on haredi enlistment, and another election took place in 2013 under the issue’s shadow.
Kadima crashed and burned and most of its voters seemed to go to newcomer Yesh Atid, founded by Yair Lapid, who promised to push for haredi enlistment. He refused to join a coalition with Shas and UTJ, and that government did manage to pass a law. But that government also fell apart less than two years after being elected for reasons that have little to do with haredim.
After the 2015 election, Shas and UTJ were back in the government, and the coalition canceled the Yesh Atid enlistment bill.
Which brings us to the Supreme Court, two years later. The court struck down the government’s reinstatement of a haredi enlistment exemption and demanded a new law be passed within a year, meaning by September 2018.
Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman ordered his ministry to draft a bill, which it did with input from the IDF and consultations with haredi figures. That bill passed a first reading in the Knesset.
The proposal consists of setting annual enlistment targets, which would increase each year, and economic penalties in the yeshiva budget if those targets are not met.
And that’s where things got stuck. By the time September 2018 came around, the government petitioned the court for an extension, which it received. But even with the extra time, an election was called in December partly because the haredi parties would not agree to any version of the bill that would also satisfy the Supreme Court.
This brings us to the current impasse in coalition negotiations.
Liberman, who wants to return as defense minister, insists that the bill that passed a first reading in the Knesset last year not be changed at all. This is a matter of principle for him and Yisrael Beytenu voters, and he says he will not bend.
Much like in last year’s political crisis over haredi enlistment, Agudat Yisrael, the hassidic party within UTJ, and especially Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the grand rabbi of the Gur Hassidic community – the biggest in Israel – is holding the hard line on enlistment.
Degel Hatorah, the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” party in UTJ, and Shas are quietly willing to mostly accept the Defense Ministry proposal, but will not openly oppose Alter and Agudat Yisrael.
The haredi parties are a publicly united front, and they’ve argued – correctly – that just about every bill undergoes changes between a first and third (final) reading in the Knesset. As such, they say, they shouldn’t have to commit to waiving their right to argue about the proposal’s finer points.
Meanwhile, there are compromises on the table: Shas negotiator and former minister Ariel Atias has found a way for there to be changes and no changes at the same time.
The Defense Ministry does not set the enlistment target numbers, leaving that to a government decision. Atias suggested that the government authorize target numbers first, and then pass the bill unchanged.
So far, the haredi side accepted the compromise, but not Yisrael Beytenu. If no agreement is reached, then we’re very likely going to a summer election.
Soon we’ll know how this game of chicken between haredi parties and Yisrael Beytenu will end, either with a dissolved Knesset and Israel going to vote twice in one year, or with the unsolvable puzzle of haredi enlistment pieced together – at least somewhat – after 20 years of political debate.