Not worth the bother
Don't force haredim into the IDF; social integration must take priority
Benjamin Netanyahu will have to make one of the most difficult political decisions of his life next week. He has to choose between the "hiloni front" within his government - the three secular parties Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu and Atzmaut demanding a clear schedule for drafting yeshiva students into national service - and the resolute opposition of the haredi component of his coalition to any arrangement that significantly erodes the blanket exemption of their young men.
He is still trying to craft an amorphous compromise between the sides, in the knowledge that whatever way he turns, will have serious implications on his ability to form a new coalition after the next election.
Netanyahu has been outmaneuvered by a combination of political motivations and court rulings. Bringing Kadima into the coalition two months ago was supposed to have bolstered his political standing and guaranteed another year and a half of unfettered power. Within the comfortable confines of the cabinet and ministerial offices, the party leaders were to have cobbled together a plan that would have enabled the government to claim it was obeying the Supreme Court's disqualification of the previous Tal Law arrangement: Giving the appearance of adding a few thousand Haredi men to the IDF's ranks or to some fuzzy notion of civil service, while in reality allowing the yeshivas to continue as if nothing happened.
The consummate political tactician didn't reckon with the narrow interests of his coalition partners and rivals in next year's election. None of them have anything to gain from a compromise. As part of the deal with Kadima, ambitious young MK Yohanan Plesner was given his own committee and two months to deliver recommendations, and next week he is going to do just that.
Haaretz's political commentator, Yossi Verter, writes today in his weekly column that Netanyahu is regretting not going for an early election. But whatever the prime minister chooses to do - break his promises to the secular bloc, jettison his traditional haredi allies or more likely, play for time in the hope that another crisis, an escalation on the southern border or a war with Iran will push the Plesner report into the "pending tray" - trying to bludgeon the ultra-Orthodox community into accepting "universal" enlistment is not going to work.
The politicians' desire to see thousands of yeshiva students replace their black coats and hats with olive-green uniforms is counterproductive to the ultimate goal of social integration and a more equal sharing of the national burden. The IDF could indeed solve many of its personnel shortages if it had a few thousand more inductees each year. But if those fresh soldiers are reluctant to serve and need chasing down by military policemen, and if they demand special treatment, serving in separate units without women, extra time off to be with their families, more pay to support wives and children, it just isn't worth the bother.
Broader national identity
The military's problems, though, are the more minor obstacles. The advantage of having an army is that its commanders ultimately have to salute and obey orders. Forced to absorb the yeshiva students, the IDF will find a way. It has dealt with bigger challenges.
The political, legal and societal dilemmas are the ones that will need a lot more time and sophistication to overcome. If the Haredi leadership persists in its opposition, which is most likely, the question of sanctions comes in. These could take the form of budgetary penalties to the yeshivas themselves, withholding or cutting off altogether their public funding. Another course is to punish the young men themselves, by forcing them to return the financial support they received for their studies in the past or banning them from housing grants in the future. But the ultra-Orthodox have a doomsday weapon prepared, and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman already hinted at it this week when he said: "When a secular young man doesn't join up, is he sanctioned? When an Arab doesn't, is his school fined? Are only the Haredim eligible to such treatment?"
If pushed into a corner, the ultra-Orthodox are planning to challenge the consensus that Arab Israelis do not have to serve in the IDF. The understanding that Israel's Arab citizens should not be expected to bear arms and fight other Arabs has never been seriously questioned in the past. That will all change now if the government adopts the Plesner recommendations. The Haredi rabbis dispute the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court over their affairs, but you can be certain that they will quietly allow a proxy to petition the court, demanding equal treatment for yeshiva students and Arab youths.
Some politicians, especially Avigdor Lieberman who has proposed in the past forcing Arab Israelis to take a "loyalty pledge" to the Jewish state, would welcome such a showdown. This is just the kind of sectarian politics he likes to play, pitting his constituency against marginalized minorities. But it would be a disastrous outcome for Israeli society as a whole.
Sharing the burden of military and national service is a worthy cause, but it must not come at the expense of facing wider national imperatives. Almost 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs and 10 percent are Haredi, and all demographic trends point to their proportion in the Israeli population growing over the coming decades from a third to close to half of all citizens. Their lack of integration into Israeli society at all levels is the biggest threat facing the country, and should worry us much more than the Iranian bomb.
Israel still lives in a dangerous neighborhood and cannot give up on a conscription-based army. The ethos of national service is a valuable one and should not be used to create additional tensions between communities. Having all Israelis share in that duty is a justified goal, but if that is the only focus it will ultimately fail, tearing in the process an already fractured society.
Creating a broader national identity that will include all Israelis, not just Zionists or Jews, bringing disadvantaged communities into the workplace, opening up educational and vocational alternatives for those who spent their entire childhood in isolated environments, are all momentous tasks. But if politicians continue to try and draft the yeshiva students without paying attention to these crucial tasks, a coalition crisis will be the least of their - and our - troubles.