Key to changing next Israeli government: Communication with haredim

Until now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the only option for the haredi parties.

A YOUNG MAN enters an army recruiting center in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
A YOUNG MAN enters an army recruiting center in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
 The key to changing the composition of the next government depends on what position the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties take. Will they strengthen the alliance they have been developing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent years and continue their boycott of opposition leader Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party, or will they change direction? Without support from the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, Netanyahu will be incapable of forming a coalition in the future. No right-wing government can exist without the backing of the haredi parties. Bibi knows this, as do all his political rivals. 
The entrance of Gideon Sa’ar into the arena raises the possibility of a certain change in the distribution of seats. This change is not between the far-right and more centrist parties, but only between the right-wing bloc. There are no centrist parties in existence today and there are no worthy leaders who are capable of being an actual alternative to the crook on Balfour Street. Sa’ar is worthy candidate, but he clearly identifies with a right-wing worldview, and unlike Netanyahu he actually believes in it. 
In recent weeks, former prime minister Ehud Barak has been making attempts to promote himself as the preferred alternative to Netanyahu. He even went so far as to say in an interview to the press last week that if for some reason Netanyahu could no longer fulfill his role as prime minister, he would be the only person who could take control of the steering wheel within minutes and provide citizens with a sense of security. It’s a little hard to hear him voice his self-admiration, since no one has forgotten that he was one of the least competent prime ministers Israel has ever had. Barak – as skilled as he is – is grossly unliked and unacceptable as an alternative to Netanyahu. 
In his television and radio appearances, Barak comes off as witty when he makes hurtful comments about Netanyahu, with whom Barak collaborated for a number of years, in reference to the possibility that Israel would actually carry out its dangerous and ridiculous attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Meir Dagan, the late Mossad head, claimed that Barak led the government astray and misrepresented the reality at the time, claiming that US president Barack Obama’s administration (according to defense secretary Leon Panetta) had been ready to turn a blind eye and tacitly accept Israeli actions in Iran. 
The key to bringing about change begins with the ability to converse with the haredi parties. Under the political circumstances of recent years, it turned out that Netanyahu was the only option for the haredim. This option, however, is close to exhausting itself. The tightrope across which Interior Minister Arye Deri and his partners are walking is stretched thin. Any careless step and it could snap, and the moment that happens, the anger that is growing among the secular public toward the haredi community will provoke a reaction that could end in an irreparable rupture that can never be mended. The leaders of the haredi community have gotten carried away with the insufferable ease with which they can blackmail Netanyahu in every matter, but this dubious situation is likely to end in an avalanche.
There is a way to bring the haredi parties back into the mainstream of political and social life in the State of Israel. It depends, in part, upon the ability of the Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz parties to tone down their anti-haredi rhetoric and make a serious change in the direction they are headed. 
The expectation that haredi men serve in the IDF has not materialized, and continuing to insist that this will happen at some point in the future is unproductive. First, the IDF is not currently – and will most likely not be in the future, as well – in need of haredi soldiers. Today’s army is massive and bloated, and too expensive for the country’s real security needs. There are already many secular Israelis who are not serving in the IDF. In times past, evading military service was considered a basic breach of trust. That’s how I felt when one of my sons decided not to serve, and I even expressed my disappointment publicly. Today’s reality is completely different, and continuing to insist upon military service for the haredi sector is pointless. It is purely an act of self-righteousness and a charade of people pretending to demand equality. 
There was, and still is, a lot of logic in the demand that was raised for the first time by former justice minister Daniel Friedmann to provide citizens who are carrying out their compulsory IDF service with an adjusted monthly salary that would compensate them for their contribution to society, as well as the fact that others are not serving. 
We need to approach this next election with a new agenda. First of all, IDF salaries need to be raised to the rate of the legal minimum wage. Once soldiers begin receiving a salary that is commensurate with the time and effort they are putting into their service, they will be better prepared to face civilian life once they complete their mandatory IDF service. 
At the same time, we need to come to terms with the fact that there’s no need for haredi yeshiva students to serve in the IDF. Instead, the Knesset needs to pass a law requiring haredi youth to carry out two years of national service, for at least six hours a day. The national service system, which was reconfigured when I was prime minister more than 10 years ago, can be tweaked so that young haredi men can contribute to their community. This would lead to a dramatic change in the quality of life for many people in the haredi community. 
And just like their fellow citizens who are serving in the IDF, they would receive monetary compensation for their national service work. It would not be as much as soldiers receive, but it would be enough for them to sustain themselves. These young men would then be allowed to choose if they wanted to study in a yeshiva. If that is what they want to do, great. If not, they would be allowed to use their time free time after they finish their national service hours to work in a job or engage in whatever studies they choose. Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and other parties need to formulate a plan of action that will change the spirit of our approach toward enabling young haredi men to contribute to society. 
This format is not ideal for haredi politicians, but it is worthwhile for them to consider accepting it. Haredi youth who desire to further their academic studies will have time to do so in the hours after their national service. No longer would they need to show up at the yeshiva in an effort to avoid being drafted against their wish into the IDF. 
If the center and left-wing parties would be courageous enough to formulate and commit to such a plan, it’s quite clear that it would lead to a political earthquake. Haredi politicians would need to rethink their game plan, and it’s possible that the otherwise voiceless unrest that is already undermining the stability of the haredi leadership would erupt and overflow. 
The key to effectuating this change is the ability of Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz to adopt a position that deviates from the one they have been committed to for a very long time. This will not be easy, that is for sure. And I imagine this process will be fraught with hesitation and true anguish. Each one of these bodies I mentioned has made significant changes that have contributed greatly to overcoming the stagnation of our political system. The time has come for them to show courage and the ability to handle internal criticism, a readiness to redefine their priorities and, more than anything else, a readiness to understand what’s more important and what’s less important for the future of the State of Israel. The main goal is to stop the seeds of fascism from harming our democracy. If this is the price we need to pay to achieve peace with the haredi sector and to change the paradigm of our relationship with this community, then so be it. 
It’s achievable – we just need to have the courage to bring the suggestion to the table. The rest is inevitable.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of the State of Israel.