Military service for all

Undoubtedly, it will take a great deal of political skill for Netanyahu and his coalition colleagues to work out a viable substitute for or revision of the unpopular Tal Law.

Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be walking into two political minefields at the same time when he attempts to make military or alternative public service mandatory for ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews. The same applies to his intention to require that Israeli Arabs be drafted as well.
Passive resistance can be expected to come from the haredim who argue that their full-time study of Judaism’s sacred texts bolsters Israel’s national defense. On the other hand, Israel’s Arabs undoubtedly will accept the call to duty, but their entry em masse (they have hitherto been allowed to volunteer individually) may pose security problems.
The trigger for these reforms was the widespread demand by the men and women who are called up for three or two years, respectively, of active service and return annually for up to a month in the reserves. They believe that these burdens should be shared by all.
At first glance, it may seem like an easy task for a prime minister whose coalition government controls 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but a closer look indicates that there will be opposition from within rather than from without.
It will come from the component ultra-Orthodox parties.
They refuse to participate in the committee headed by MK Yohanan Plesner which has been assigned to replacing the controversial “Tal Law” that applies to military conscription.
It can come up with new legislation or propose amendments that will ban the exceptions currently given to haredim.
Some militant haredim have warned that they will not obey draft notices even if their refusal results in arrest and jail. It is doubtful that Netanyahu relishes the prospect of such severe police action against ultra- Orthodox Jews. And the possibility or the likelihood of mass demonstrations by young men whose uniform black and white attire and religiously dictated grooming (beards and earlocks) clearly identify them as ultra- Orthodox Jews would not make the prime minister look good abroad.
On the other hand, he cannot perpetuate the situation in which thousands of able-bodied young men avoid service in the armed forces while secularist Jewish citizens and non-haredi though devoutly religious Jews risk their lives for their country. It will take some very shrewd wheeling and dealing on Netanyahu’s part to find a solution acceptable to both sides.
The impending compulsory conscription of Israeli Arabs also is fraught with problems.
Their exemption, which was initiated by prime minister Ben-Gurion (who also held the post of defense minister), was based (by him) on moral considerations. He thought it would be wrong to compel Israeli Arabs to bear arms against their brethren in the neighboring Arab states.
However, during the intervening years it has become evident that omission from the IDF’s ranks virtually condemned them to second-class citizenship. It also imposed economic handicaps. This was because well-paid jobs in the defense industries are contingent upon military service.
It also implied that the Israeli Arabs’ loyalty to the State of Israel was suspect.
If there was any justification for such a sweeping and seemingly prejudicial attitude 64 years ago it certainly is not acceptable today. Israel’s Arabs, who constitute more than 20 percent of the country’s population attend all of its universities as well as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and constitute a significant component of the national economy. Besides, other non- Jewish citizens are called up and wear the uniforms of the IDF or the Border Police. These include the Druse and Circassians. A substantial percentage of the Beduin Arabs volunteer. The latter have distinguished themselves in all kinds of combat situations.
The greatest value inherent in the conscription of Israeli Arabs is the impetus it would give to their total and genuine integration into the body politic. Anyone who contends that this is not what they really want or that this proposed reform is premature if only because the Israeli Arabs would prefer to live in the projected Palestinian state rather than in the State of Israel is wrong. This notion has been disproved repeatedly in recent years.
Dramatic proof was demonstrated by the residents of Umm el-Fahm and other towns in the Wadi Ara region.
When Israeli negotiators raised the possibility that their residences might be transferred to the Palestinian side of the 1949 armistice line they not only were indignant, but also deeply insulted. Their leaders declared openly that Israel was their country and that they did not want to be separated from it for any reason.
Undoubtedly, it will take a great deal of political skill for Netanyahu and his coalition colleagues to work out a viable substitute for or revision of the unpopular Tal Law.
However, they have no choice and the time at their disposal is severely limited.
The time to act is at hand and the sooner the better.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.