Coalition to deal with Haredi army exemption
Israel’s new unity government could dramatically change something many Israelis care deeply: haredi exemptions from military service.
Nearly every government in recent years has needed the haredi parties to cobble together a governing coalition, rendering haredi entitlement programs such as the military exemption politically untouchable.
This long has irritated Israelis who serve in the army and resent that the haredim, by and large, do not serve yet draw all sorts of entitlement payments from the state.
But with Shaul Mofaz’s decision to bring his Kadima party and its 28 seats into the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer needs the haredi parties to keep his government in power. They could pull out, and it would make no real difference – at least until the elections that are scheduled for October 2013.
Already there is movement to find an alternative to the Tal Law, which granted military exemptions to haredi Israeli men but was struck down several months ago by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court ordered that an alternative to the law be put into place by Aug. 1.
Crafting an alternative to the Tal Law is one of the priorities set forth by the new government coalition, and it may be a potential historical legacy of the 18-month alliance between Netanyahu and Mofaz.
Last week, the Jerusalem Post reported that under the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal, haredi exemptions from the army would be replaced by a Basic Law requiring all citizens to perform military or civilian service.
Last month, Kadima proposed instituting a universal military draft within five years. Under the Kadima plan, all Israelis either would serve in the military or do national service in a variety of fields, among them education, health and domestic security. Those who fail to comply would be barred from receiving any state funding.
The question is whether such a plan, could survive opposition from Israel’s haredi parties. Netanyahu doesn’t need them to survive in office until the next elections. Indeed, if he were to push through such legislation, it could earn his Likud party much broader support, including from secular and more centrist voters, the next time Israel goes to the polls.
But it could cost Netanyahu in October 2013 if Likud wins the election, Kadima fares poorly and Netanyahu needs the haredi parties to form a coalition.
Some other factors are at play, too.
For one thing, while in principle most Israelis would like haredim to be subject to the same requirements of service demanded of all other Israelis, in practice the army does not want a sudden flood of tens of thousands of new haredi recruits. The Israel Defence Forces lacks the infrastructure to absorb them, both in numbers and operationally. What would the army do with 10,000 new recruits who are opposed to significant interaction with female instructors?
Also, a dramatic transformation of the relationship between haredim and the state would run up against opposition not only from haredi parties in the Knesset but from haredi citizens. Mass demonstrations and even riots likely would ensue. The reality is that Israel doesn’t want all these haredim in the army. What Israel wants is more haredi men working, paying taxes and integrated into Israeli society.
Under the current system, haredi men must stay in yeshiva until their 30s to keep their military exemption. Haredi women are granted exemptions from army service upon request. That has helped bankrupt the haredi community and nurture a black-market economy in which many haredi men work surreptitiously and do not pay taxes.
Changing the rule would help drive haredim into the workforce and into better-paying jobs. That would help Israel’s tax rolls and reduce haredi dependency on welfare.
Some haredim see these changes as key to the economic and social survival of their community. But other haredi leaders see it as opening up a slippery slope away from the yeshiva and Jewish observance and toward the dangerous temptations of modern, secular Israel.
Kadima has proposed exempting 1,000 haredi yeshiva students from the military draft and allowing others to defer military service on a year-by-year basis while they are studying in yeshiva. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Likud is likely to propose an alternative that instead would establish a minimum number of haredi participants in national service programs that would increase every year without a cap on those claiming yeshiva-related exemptions from service.
For now, the haredi parties appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.
“There can’t be a situation in Israel in 2012 where someone who wants to study Torah will not be able to do so,” Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party told the Post. “But as long as the principle of ‘Torato Omunato’ [Torah is one’s work] is preserved, UTJ will remain in the coalition.”