An Israel Divided Over Universal Conscription

by Sybil Ottenstein on August 10, 2012

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.

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1 srudnick August 13, 2012

An interesting article with a few generalisations. From what I understand the previous government led by Kadima expanded the settlements far greater than this current government. In fact under this government, the least amount of building in/expansion of settlements has taken place for almost 3 decades (western media outlets these days a far more obsessed with reporting any building activity in Judaea and Samaria than they used to be, perhaps to play-up to a certain image of this government). Also although i cannot clarify this, the Kadima faction was seen to be on the verge of extinction and there inclusion in the government was seen to be a means of securing the future of some of their own politicians (some of have recently defected to Likkud). They pulled out and are now trying to gain cheap popularity by claiming they would draft all charedim (why didn’t they do they that and do that when they led the country?). They know they won’t be successful if they are in the government, so its easier to shout from bleechers, especially when you can play off the emotions of a naive general publid. Ensuring all charedim go into the army is a fairly complicated process, it requires an overhaul of the military and general budget of the country. It will cost the economy a lot more to have the charedim in the army, then have them studying in yeshiva. An almost impossible decision taking into account Stanley Fischer and Steinetz recently announced a host of austerity measures in order to avoid an impending recession. Do people think Charedim will not go back to yeshiva after the army? Further dragging out welfare provisions having to support a minority not in work. Charedim can only be drafted if Arab-Israelis are drafted (otherwise the law still remains unequal), another major complicated issue/stumbling block. The current government will be the longest serving and most stable government (witnessing the least amount of reshuffles and seeing out a full 5 year term) in Israel’s history if it sees itself through to next year’s election in 2013. It may be crippled in the eyes of a few (but by that definition i suppose ever government has been crippled then). Israel is a democracy and people can vote, so at the next election we will see who supports who. The current government lacks international support, for no apparent reason, other than it has never really enjoyed international support. Israel is still threatened with extinction and now has new hostile neighbors. Under this current government the least settlement building has taken place for decades, Palestinians enjoy greater freedom of movement than ever before, their economy is enjoying unprecedented growth (thanks to increasing aid and trade from within Israel), yet Israel is still and will forever be seen as the pariah. Because Bibi has not brought peace or drafted charedim he is seen to be some sort second-rate puppeteer, but as far as I am aware no Prime Minister in Israel’s history has achieved either.

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2 Boris August 14, 2012

It seemed to me that the whole point of Kadima joining the majority was to find a solution about the Tal law.
But actually, Bibi wasn’t ready to take any difficult positions against Shaas, so I still don’t understand the point of this action.

Bibi seems more and more to be just looking to stay Prime Minister the longer possible, implying not taking any hazardous positions.

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