nahal haredi 298.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While public attention is focused on the latest corruption allegations and the question of who will be Israel's next chief-of-staff, a potentially explosive political, social and constitutional crisis is brewing over the perennial issue of conscription for military-age haredi men.
The Tal Law, the provisional legislation enacted for five years as a stop-gap measure to give the government time to cobble together an acceptable solution to the dispute, is due to expire on July 31. If the government wants to extend the current legislation without having to go through the entire process of three Knesset plenary readings and a Knesset committee debate, it will have to do so by February 1, only nine days from now.
Not much has been heard about the Tal Law since May 11, 2006, when the High Court of Justice rejected petitions by the Movement for Quality Government, Meretz, the Shinui Party and attorney Yehuda Ressler, all of whom charged that the law violated the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom by giving the haredim preferential treatment.
According to the law, haredi men aged 22 to 27 who have deferred their draft by studying in yeshivas from the age of 18, may leave their studies for one year without automatically being drafted into the army. This is known as "the year of decision" and the man may spend the year any way he wants.
At the end of the year, he must decide whether to receive another draft deferment and return to the yeshiva or join the army. If the person meets criteria determined by the army, he may, in lieu of military service, volunteer for a year of community service.
The law was meant to achieve two ends. The first was to increase the number of haredim serving in the army without imposing compulsory service on them. The second was to wean them away from the yeshiva and get as many as possible to start working.
During the High Court hearings, the government admitted that it had failed to implement two of the key elements of the law. According to one, the army was to have set up new frameworks for haredim which would be tailored to their backgrounds and needs, and service periods shorter than the three years required of other soldiers.
It was obvious that most haredi men would prefer to study rather than serve three full years, even if in principle they were ready to join the army.
According to the second, the Welfare Ministry was supposed to have established an authority to administer the community service program for those who opted out of the yeshiva and could not serve in the army.
On November 9, 2004, two years after the law went into effect, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz told then prime minister Ariel Sharon that only 464 yeshiva students, out of 38,000 who had deferred their service, had taken advantage of the "year of decision" to leave the yeshiva, even for only one year.
A year later, on September 27, 2005, then justice minister Tzipi Livni, who had been assigned by Sharon to look into the matter, wrote back to him that "the implementation of the Tal Law is unsatisfactory, to say the least. Parts of the law, especially those pertaining to national service, are not implemented and the number of yeshiva students who enlist in the army after the year of decision is lower than expected. Therefore, we must make immediate changes in the existing situation."
On December 11, 2005, the state informed the High Court that only 139 out of 45,639 haredim of military age had joined the army since the introduction of the Tal Law.
The court ruled eight to one against the petitioners, on the grounds that the law "had not been given a fair amount of time to achieve its ends."
However, the head of the panel, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak added that "if there is no change [in the current circumstances] there is serious cause for concern that the law will become unconstitutional. We will have no choice but to consider the entire arrangement anew, both regarding its social and it legal aspects."
Given that little has been done since the ruling was handed down, the government may not have an easy time convincing a Knesset majority to extend the law. But assuming it does, it will inevitably face a new rash of petitions to the High Court of Justice.