With the largest governing coalition in Israeli history taking power, this was a summer of immense promise for Israeli politics. The entrance of the centrist Kadima party bolstered Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government; the coalition finally appeared willing and able to make progress on a myriad of deadlocked issues, including the seemingly impenetrable peace process. Instead, a debate over the maintenance of an unequal conscription policy between the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, and the rest of Israeli society has undone the historic ruling coalition and monopolized the Israeli agenda to the detriment of all other policy priorities.
Israelis, both men and women, are drafted to the military at the age of eighteen for three and two year stints, respectively. Arab Israelis—with the exception of the Druze—have not been subjected to the draft. For most Jewish Israelis, however, mandatory military service is a core element of Israeli national identity and one of the primary foundations of Israel’s establishment, existence, and future.
Within the context of early statehood political maneuvering, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to exempt a certain number of Haredi students from military service so that they could devote their lives to the study of Jewish scripture. That number has grown to an astounding 13 percent of draft-age Jews, whose primary source of income is government welfare. A highly emotional issue, this unequal allocation has engendered deep and growing resentment among non-Haredi Israelis.
The law that maintained this status quo, known formally as the “Deferral of Military Service for Yeshiva Students Law,” informally as the “Tal Law,” was ruled unconstitutional by the Israeli High Court of Justice last February. However, lacking a viable alternative and adequate political support, the ruling didn’t result in the law’s immediate revocation. Instead, the court allowed it to remain in place until its expiration date on July 31, 2012. Hours before the law expired, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave the military an extra month to present a temporary “practical plan” for including Haredim in the army.
Kadima’s decision to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in May, 2012, was integral to the narrative surrounding the Tal Law. Holding 28 of the 120 seats of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz’s submission to the mega-unity government gave the prime minister the largest majority in the country’s political history, with a total of 94 seats. In a larger-than-life representation of Netanyahu’s seemingly supreme mandate, Time magazine plastered the Prime Ministers face on its cover underneath the title “King Bibi.”
The inclusion of Kadima, a party which supported credible engagement with the Palestinian leadership and a two-state solution, portended the possible shift in settlement building strategy and the resurrection of the peace process. However, the unity government’s first hurdle—the Tal Law—has already undermined and undone Israel’s largest ever coalition.
Kadima joined the government with the aim of ending the exemptions for the Haredim under the Tal Law and seeking to pass a law that would ensure equal and universal conscription. Unable to secure such legislation, the spirit of hope and change was short lived, as Mofaz withdrew from the coalition after a mere seventy days. Mofaz opposed Netanyahu’s preferred approach of more gradually phasing-in Haredim into the military in order to placate the religious parties that are integral to his coalition. In a scathing letter of resignation, Mofaz bemoaned to Netanyahu, “Because of narrow political considerations, you chose the alliance with the [Haredim] over an alliance with the Zionist majority.”
Over the past few weeks, the explosive debates in the halls of the Knesset have spilled out onto the streets. Protesters in Tel Aviv are demanding a universal draft for all Jewish Israelis. Earlier this month, an estimated 20,000 protestors marched through the streets of Tel Aviv holding signs that read “Equal service for all” while chanting “One people, one draft.” The Haredim have countered with protests of their own.
Despite the loss of Kadima, Netanyahu’s coalition still retains a majority, albeit a significantly smaller one, thanks to his alliances with smaller right-wing and religious parties. Whether or not elections take place before their scheduled 2013 date remains to be seen. Either way, Netanyahu can be sure that Haredi exemptions from military service, which secular Israelis perceive as draft-dodging, will be at the top of the agenda.
Losing Kadima was a formidable blow to Netanyahu’s ability to tackle the serious challenges facing Israel. Mofaz and Kadima’s support are critical for shoring up domestic support for potential military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Crippled politically and lacking international support, the current government is looking more and more like a lame duck than an agent of change. Netanyahu’s attempts to please both sides of the aisle—the secular protesters and his religious coalition partners—leaves the once crowned king looking ever more like a second-rate puppeteer.