It is no accident that Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner was sitting all by himself in the spotlight at the press conference that took place in the parliament’s Jerusalem Hall on Wednesday. The Plesner Committee, appointed to draft a replacement to the Tal Law governing Haredi draft exemptions with legislation requiring ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs to do either military or civilian national service, started out with 10 members and ended with just one only six weeks later. That’s quite an accomplishment.
When the prime minister disbanded the committee two days ago, he did so out of narrow political considerations. It had not occurred to Netanyahu that Plesner, a young MK, would go so far as to threaten his relationship with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Netanyahu thought, and still thinks, that it is possible to concoct a substitute for the Tal Law governing Haredi draft, more or less according to the formula suggested by coalition chief Ze'ev Elkin: the same thing in a slightly different guise, including vague wording about sanctions. Plesner, on intimate terms with the Tal Law and its defects as one of those in charge of its application, refused to be dictated to. He has the reputation of a professional with integrity, but he reached the finish line like a politician.
When Netanyahu disbanded the committee, he did it a big favor, perhaps even saving it from itself. It ended with great confusion over several basic principles: whether to include personal sanctions (to be more precise, to deny certain advantages to those who do not serve) and how many, and whether to include quotas on yeshiva students or simply to obligate the government to meet enlistment goals rather than giving this responsibility to the religious schools.
Not only the Haredim, who did not sit on the committee, requested softer regulations; members of the committee including professors Yaffa Zilbershatz and Yedidia Stern also opposed quotas. Ze'ev Elkin was energetically opposed to them, of course, and it is not certain that the representative of the Atzmaut Party, MK Einat Wilf, would have sided with Plesner. But the committee never made final decisions about these significant issues. It planned to meet Tuesday in order to do so, but plans changed when Netanyahu disbanded the committee.
After the disbanding, Plesner found himself alone. He decided to include the more extreme positions in his report, resulting in suggestions of far reaching personal sanctions and an exemption quota of only 20 percent to be given to exemplary yeshiva student scholars – which would certainly not have been approved by some members of the committee.
Plesner is not the first to behave like a politician. Representatives of Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi withdrew from the panel, arguing that there had to be a clause mandating the enlistment of Arabs, but Plesner’s report cannot be considered a disinterested, professional one. More than anything else, the report is testimony to the professional pretensions that accompanied his panel until it was disbanded two days ago. This is not the Plesner report, but merely Plesner’s.
The Plesner Committee worked seriously within the time frame it was given, but the report could have been a document with a significant impact if it had included the broadest views shared by its members. Now the High Court of Justice can also view it as having limited validity, if it has any at all. What is certain is that the so-called committee report may serve as a terrific platform for Kadima before the coming elections.
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