A pragmatic approach

What matters is not that we enact a new law but how efficiently we use the tools placed in the public’s hands during the state’s infancy.

What, me serve? 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
What, me serve? 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
There’s no disputing that the “Tal Law” was a dispiriting failure. It barely dented the inequity that allowed significant sectors of the population – most prominently many haredim and Arabs – to dodge the draft.
Indeed, the law perversely provided an official stamp of approval for what turned out to have been an elaborate charade. It furthered and preserved the link between enrollment in a yeshiva and exemption from enlistment in the army.
Therefore, there is no need for Israelis to lament the fact that no substitute could be concocted for the law finally struck down by the High Court of Justice.
For all the sound and fury, the differences between the Likud and Kadima were paltry, hinged on dispensable details rather than substance, and might have not survived further petitions to the High Court.
The failed negotiations on the law were a façade. The real reason Kadima wanted to join the coalition was its fear of a September 4 election mulled by the Likud.
Now that this immediate danger has been eliminated, there is patently no political profit in remaining in a partnership with the Likud.
Had there remained a lucrative payoff, the will would have been found to hammer out a Tal Law sequel, because in politics, more than in any other sphere, where there is a will there is a way.
Whatever the other pros and cons to the breakup, the follow-up to the Tal Law is no loss. Indeed there is no point in rushing before the court-imposed August 1 deadline to wave a magic wand and produce a new formula geared to please everyone and disgruntle no one. Not only is that inherently undoable but it is also unnecessary.
We can simply revert to the status quo as it existed before 1999, when then-premier Ehud Barak appointed the Tal Committee (whose recommendations were adopted in 2002 and extended, significantly, by the Kadima administration in 2007, when it was already clear that it had become a farce).
Before the Tal Law, every able-bodied 18-year-old was theoretically subject to conscription according to the 1949 military service regulations. The situation, in fact, formally resembled what the current Yisrael Beytenu bill proposes. Beyond it lies the minefield of implementing the existing law. Each defense minister is empowered to decree if and whom to exempt.
Thus it may well be possible to gradually increase the numbers of ultra-Orthodox youths conscripted – as the various legislative remedies aimed to do – but without the attendant fanfare. The 1,300 haredim already in the IDF could be joined by an additional 400 each year, without straining the army’s resources and capabilities to absorb more. Others could be earmarked for significant civilian national service.
Such pragmatism could also survive legal challenges.
The state could respond that it is drafting as many ultra-Orthodox as the IDF can handle.
The incremental draft obligation could also be imposed at random. In other words, a net could be cast unpredictably and whoever is caught in it must serve or face personal consequences.
The deterrent value of possible punishment cannot be underestimated. Thus it might be feasible to conscript greater numbers of eligible adolescents without superfluous hoopla sure to trigger a destructive rift in our anyhow already fraying societal fabric.
There was nothing sacrosanct in the Tal Law and we can carry on without an equally deficient replacement.
What matters is not that we enact a new law but how efficiently we use the tools placed in the public’s hands during the state’s infancy.
From this point on, it will be up to the electorate to judge how each government that it had put into office uses the tools it already possesses. Our public opinion is more critical and more mindful of the issue than ever.
Therefore, voters are more likely to scrutinize the record of every defense minister and every coalition on the question of conscription. Those who fail to deliver any improvement may well face electoral backlash. The fear of the voter can be a potent incentive to progress.
We have power and we can do more than gripe.