A government coalition effort to craft a revised version of the Tal Law, whereby a sizeable number of draft eligible haredi yeshiva students would be forced to choose between joining the Israel Defense Forces or partake in Sherut Leumi (alternative national service), could become a political quagmire for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz is threatening to bolt the unity government over a lack of progress toward finding a solution.
Earlier this week Netanyahu dissolved the Plesner Committee, which was charged with recommending an alternative to the Tal Law, after several key committee members from Yahadut HaTorah, Shas and Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), who represent opposing positions on the issue, refused to partake in committee meetings and summarily resigned.
Members of Kadima, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Bayit Yehudi are adamant about creating a legally binding draft law that would roll back the number of draft exemptions in the haredi yeshiva world to levels agreed upon by successive Israeli governments (which included the haredi parties) over 20 years ago. For the moment, political and rabbinic leaders within the Shas and Yahadut HaTorah factions have steadfastly refused the Plesner Committee’s various recommendations despite the fact that a sizeable number of Shas Party voters have served in the IDF. Yahadut HaTorah hard-liners have also rejected many aspects of the Sherut Leumi program.
Mofaz has refused to meet with Netanyahu to resolve the dispute, criticizing the Israeli leader for torpedoing efforts to forge a new national draft law to replace the Tal Law. That law expires on August 1.
Netanyahu is now faced with the task of trying to prevent Kadima, Shas, Yahadut HaTorah and Bayit Yehudi from bringing down the government before July 25, the scheduled end of the summer Knesset session.
According to several Israeli media reports, the IDF’s Manpower Division has already informed Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the army could not absorb large numbers of haredi recruits, while Sherut Leumi would be more than willing to accommodate yeshiva graduates. These haredi recruits could provide needed help to the alternative service’s year-round support staff shortages.
With looming government budget cuts and other austerity measures destined to negatively affect the economic fortunes of draft-exempt haredi students who receive government stipends, Netanyahu government members are perplexed by the hard-line positions of both Shas and Yahadut HaTorah. Those serving in Sherut Leumi receive monthly stipends and, in some instances involving two-year commitments to serve in government, living quarters at no cost and free transportation expenses.
In an effort to maintain government unity, particularly with Kadima, Netanyahu said, “Let us take the reins and bring about a solution. I am committed to a more equitable division of the burden. In January, even before the High Court of Justice ruling [requiring a new draft law], I declared that I would work towards greater equality in sharing the burden, gradually, among the ultra-orthodox and Arab publics, without setting public against public. This has been, and remains, my position.
“We charged the Plesner Committee with formulating an agreed-upon proposal for the government and the coalition in keeping with the High Court of Justice ruling. To my regret, the Plesner Committee did not succeed in reaching agreed-upon outlines due to the withdrawal of several of its members, and it cannot formulate a recommendation that would achieve a Knesset majority. For all intents and purposes, the committee has disbanded. The disbanding of the committee does not obviate our responsibility to deal with the issue of equality in bearing the burden.”
Netanyahu outlined his ideas to try to resolve the problem. He pledged to “invite the heads of the coalition parties to try to formulate a proposal that would receive a Knesset majority. Pursuant to my talks with Shaul Mofaz, I believe that with a joint effort we can achieve the desired result. If by August 1 there is no agreed-upon majority, the Tal Law will be abrogated and Security Service Law [universal draft] will come into effect, applicable to all Israeli citizens.
“I prefer an agreed-upon and gradual solution,” the prime minister continued. “But if we cannot reach such a solution by August 1, the IDF will draft according to its needs, and I believe that it will do so while taking into consideration the various publics so as to prevent a rift in the nation. Since the Security Service Law does not deal with the participation of the Arab and ultra-Orthodox publics in civilian service, we will also work to provide arrangements on this issue.”