Small print in Lapid's plan for Haredi conscription reveals gap between rhetoric and actual proposal
According to the party’s official platform, the Lapid plan should only be troubling now to Haredi youngsters aged 13 and younger. Meanwhile, even if voters didn’t want to hear about the Palestinian conflict, it’s rearing its head.
“Equalizing the burden” seems to be the most magical turn of phrase right now among local voters. Yair Lapid, who on Tuesday night was crowned the big winner in the surprising election (involving a campaign that had been described as “the most boring in years” right up to the announcement of the results), wisely waved two flags: improving the situation of the middle class, and equal military service for all. Unlike his father before him, Lapid refrained from clashing directly with the ultra-Orthodox. His stance attracted some 16 percent of those who cast ballots.
Lapid’s statement the following evening − which instantaneously put an end to left-wing dreams about the creation of a 61-MK opposition bloc that would impede Benjamin Netanyahu − was appropriate. It can be assumed that most Yesh Atid voters expect to see the party’s chair in the government, influencing the national agenda, rather than serving the people on the opposition bench.
For his part, the prime minister also seems to have a firm grasp of the voters’ message. Thus, Netanyahu made haste to reach out to Lapid, and spoke about improving the quality of life in the country, rather than continuing to make threats about Iran. Neither of the two presented a real alternative. Neither a narrow, right-wing coalition nor a left-wing bloc that can hobble Netanyahu is a feasible option.
The question of the ultra-Orthodox and, in particular, the issue of their non-conscription to the Israel Defense Forces, were of particular interest to voters. The reality, however, is that there is a genuine gap between Lapid’s public image as a fighter for the cause of drafting the Haredim, and his actual plan. Yesh Atid’s policy on this issue was formulated by two individuals, the journalist (and soon-to-be MK) Ofer Shelah and Maj. Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, former head of the IDF’s Human Resources Directorate, who turned down an offer to join Yesh Atid’s Knesset list and wandered over to Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, on whose slate he was elected to the Knesset this week.
The “equal service for all” plank of the Yesh Atid platform declares that the “existing model of service erodes the common foundations of life” in the country. Lapid proposes “a revolution in service to the country that will encourage and reward induction to the army, and facilitate a solution of civilian service for various populations and sectors.”
The rub, however, is in the continuation of the plank: Yesh Atid gives the state no less than a period of five years to organize and implement the new scheme. Until then, the plan calls for giving yeshiva students who don’t serve in the IDF a “full exemption from the age of 18, [during which] they can join the workforce.”
In other words, at least according to the party’s official platform, the Lapid plan should only be troubling now to Haredi youngsters aged 13 and younger. Anyone older than that has an automatic military exemption under that plan. The question is: Where will Lapid be in another five years, when the time comes to enforce this consensual model? Will an ultra-Orthodox teenager whose time for army service comes around at the end of 2018 really comply with his draft notice, even though his older siblings did not receive a mere postponement of army service (as has been the case until now), but rather a full exemption that frees them to go straight into the workforce?
Subsequently, according to a report last week in Yedioth Ahronoth, Lapid has changed his mind, and no longer sees the need for a five-year introductory process in implementing the new scheme. We don’t know yet what the details are.
If Lapid, and in his wake Netanyahu as well, really believe in equalizing the burden of serving in the military, that five-year delay mechanism is exaggerated. One high-ranking army source states that the IDF doesn’t need more than one year to get organized to use the new model.
Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, an NPO that works for “religious freedom and equality,” calculates that if the plan is to grant an immediate exemption to ultra-Orthodox men aged 18-28, this means that a “free pass” will be given to close to 100,000 Haredim. Somehow it seems that these numbers and circumstances are not what voters had in mind when they cast their ballots for Yesh Atid.
Over the past year, the local political arena was intensely occupied with the question of Haredi army conscription. Among those involved in concerted parliamentary efforts in this realm is an MK who will not be in Israel’s 19th Knesset, Yohanan Plesner. He ran as the Kadima party’s No. 3 candidate, and ended up out in the cold.
Plesner began his work by establishing a special committee that, for the first time, collected relevant data about the scope of this issue, and came up with an alternative model. Then-Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch relied noticeably on Plesner’s data in her ruling striking down the Tal Law (relating to IDF exemptions) a year ago. Last spring, a second Plesner committee was established; it ended up collapsing under political pressure, failing in its bid to advance a new conscription model.
Still, Plesner’s ideas remain germane: enforcement of stiff draft quotas, improved enforcement of them among yeshiva students, conferral of service exemptions only to a small cadre of Torah prodigies, and responsibility in the army for deciding which Haredi men it really needs to draft.
In the aftermath of the second Plesner committee’s failure, attempts were made to adopt a “Plesner-lite” plan, including a framework presented by Minister Moshe Ya’alon, as well as ideas floated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the period leading up to the election. All of these ideas remain on the table; ironically, the original plan sponsored by Lapid, the hero of secular Israelis, would be the easiest proposal for Netanyahu to digest. The same would be true for the ultra-Orthodox themselves: That community − whose members can be counted on to shout out to the heavens if a plan for wholesale conscription is implemented − know that many things are likely to change during the next five years, before call-up notices are sent to youngsters born in the year 2000.
In the meantime, the prospect of a constitutional quagmire looms. The conferral of a massive, immediate exemption to the ultra-Orthodox is liable to elicit a new High Court petition against the enforcement of mandatory draft orders vis-a-vis all other youths. No matter how problematic it was, the past arrangement attempted at least to maintain a semblance of equality. Implementation of the original Lapid plan would create a legal situation in which, for at least the next five years, there would be two categories of young Jewish men in the population: those who owe the state three years of military service, and those who are legally entitled to enter the workforce at the age of 18.
The voters’ verdict this week does not appear to constitute a show of no-confidence regarding Netanyahu’s security policies, but was instead presumably a critique of his efforts to deal with socioeconomic issues. Efforts made by the left to characterize Lapid’s success, and Likud’s partial setback, as conferral of a public mandate for continued negotiation with the Palestinians, were not especially convincing. This week, voters were concerned about domestic issues.
The Palestinians have a strange habit of stubbornly reminding us of their existence, each time we try to sweep the problem that they constitute under the rug. It is doubtful whether the present quiet in the West Bank will continue without disturbance for the duration of a Netanyahu-Lapid government.
After fulfilling the civic duty of casting a ballot, Election Day provided a good opportunity for a visit to the territories. Not a single IDF patrol vehicle was to be found on the main roads, in the swath of land that starts at the Green Line and continues to the Tapuah junction, and then leads to Beit El. That’s not what an intifada looks like. Indeed, the deployment level of IDF troops in the West Bank today has reached the lowest point since the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000.
Nonetheless, there are rumblings on the ground. As described last week in this column, this has been prompted by two factors: a worrisome increase in the number of persons hurt or killed by IDF fire, and the apparently more effective Palestinian civil struggle against the occupation.
Wednesday witnessed another lethal incident. Soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian student, Lubna Munir Hanash, 21, from the Al-Aroub refugee camp, between Bethlehem and Hebron. She apparently was caught in the crossfire, when IDF soldiers vainly pursued people who had been throwing Molotov cocktails. Hanash is the third person to have been killed by live IDF fire in the West Bank during the past two weeks. Another Palestinian youth was mortally wounded in a fourth shooting incident.
These incidents can no longer be dismissed as coincidentally proximate occurrences. Preliminary investigations of each case raise suspicions of wanton violation of rules of engagement. In each shooting, no mortal threat appears to have been posed to soldiers (regarding the incident in which soldiers killed a 16-year-old from the Budrus village, the army has detailed photographic evidence of what transpired near the separation fence; see Gideon Levy’s report on page B2). In Wednesday’s incident, a deputy brigade commander and his driver, who were traveling on an administrative errand, disembarked from their vehicle after it was ambushed by rocks and fire-bombs, and launched a pursuit of the assailants. What unfolded sounds like a replay of the kind of misbegotten incidents that transpired during the first intifada in the late 1980s.
Right now, two experienced, trained officers are in charge of the army in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, head of the IDF Central Command, and Brig. Gen. Hagai Mordechai, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division. It is to be hoped that this pair will take tough steps to restrain their forces before things deteriorate more extensively.
The deaths of civilians compound other tensions on the ground. Hamas is gaining confidence in the West Bank, in the aftermath of what is perceived as its success in standing up to the IDF in the Gaza Strip during Operation Pillar of Defense. Also, mounting numbers of armed activists, including Fatah men, travel openly on streets in refugee camps; this trend comes after years in which such activists never dared to challenge the Palestinian Authority in this way.
Concurrently, organized Palestinian demonstrations continue via the establishment of protest outposts. This is a response to the accelerated construction which the Palestinians observe being undertaken by Israelis − work that is no longer confined to the large settlement blocs. This Palestinian struggle, supported openly by the PA leadership, began to attract media attention when protest outposts were established close to Jerusalem; earlier, similar efforts had been undertaken in the southern Mount Hebron area, as well as in the Jordan Valley.
The struggle pertains to the fate of areas within Area C, which is under Israeli security control, and it is being waged with a profound understanding of both Israel’s legal system and of the international community: Indeed, it appears the Palestinians have learned all that there is to be learned from the longstanding activity undertaken by Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, secretary-general of Amana, the construction arm of the settlement movement. These also appear to be issues that Yair Lapid will have no choice but to engage with from this point onward, his well-stated preference for dealing with domestic-civilian issues notwithstanding.
Ticking security clock
The security-diplomatic clock continues to run even during periods of governmental transition. On Wednesday, Netanyahu convened an urgent meeting with heads of the security apparatus concerning developments in Syria, focusing on the possibility that the Assad regime could lose control of its chemical-weapon arsenals. The defense minister was not on hand; Ehud Barak had flown to Switzerland to take part in the Davos economic forum after having cast his ballot. He didn’t wait to hear the results of the exit polls.
En route, Barak managed at the last minute to stop the new IDF deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, from participating in a conference on “Limitations in the Deployment of Military Force,” scheduled to be held at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya the day after the election. The defense minister’s office explained that senior IDF officers should not make public pronouncements during the sensitive election season. The IDF General Staff took the blame for the incident, indicating that it had been late in forwarding the request for approval of Eizenkot’s participation to the minister’s office. All in all, no terrible damage was done: There appear to be only a few weeks left for mishaps of this sort to occur.
Despite the absence of Eizenkot, the Herzliya event, held in memory of the late former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, was interesting. Three retired major generals − Dan Harel, Yishai Beer and Ami Ayalon, all of whom had served under Lipkin-Shahak − spoke openly about Israel’s strategic environment.
Harel said his experience indicates that top IDF officers are acutely conscious of the limits of military power. “Many times the army rejected far-reaching proposals for actions: It presented possible consequences of such actions, and recommended that a different course be taken. In a large portion of such cases, its opinion was accepted,” he stated. Deterrence, Harel added, is an ephemeral concept. “It has the same quality as a lemon popsicle in the desert: It melts, and in the end you are left with only the stick.”
Beer, a law professor who earlier expressed his opposition to an Israeli bomb attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in an interview with Haaretz, claimed that “a war of choice has no moral or legal legitimacy, and lacks wisdom.”
Philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal spoke strongly, recalling his own experiences during the first Lebanon War. He argued that leaders require humility when they order the use of force. “Life is not a laboratory experiment,” he reflected. “It has unexpected consequences.”
Such ruminations should provide food for thought for the soon-to-be policy-makers from Yesh Atid, although they were likely catching up on some sleep after their historic victory while this symposium was taking place. Hard choices, dilemmas and equivocation of the sort the conference participants discussed, from the West Bank to Lebanon, although hopefully not to Iran, are liable to engage them during the next four years.