In 1988, the High Court of Justice rejected yet another petition against the arrangement whereby yeshiva students postpone military service. But justice Aharon Barak warned that the number of those receiving deferments was significant, because "the quantity determines the quality." Justice Miriam Ben-Porat warned that in the future, the number of those receiving deferments would create "justification for the intervention of this court."

At that time, there were about 18,000 such deferments. Today there are 55,000.

Last Tuesday, the High Court revisited the deferment issue, which has meanwhile morphed into the Tal Law. "Almost an entire society does not bear a central burden," Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote. That did not stop the High Court from granting another extension, of 15 months, to see whether societal change might not suddenly occur that would cause the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to enlist in the army.

The High Court ruling is also disheartening in light of statements made by the head of the Israel Defense Forces' planning and human resources administration, Col. Tziki Sela, to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a year ago. "We need the Haredim in military service," he said, explaining that if all 5,000 - the number that receive deferments each year - were to join, it would release the entire reserve force from operational duties such as patrols and manning checkpoints. He called this matter "a clear national need."

The severity of the problem can be seen in the report the IDF gave recently to the team that monitors enforcement of the Tal Law. The report predicted that in 2020, some 25 percent of 18-year-olds will evade military service under the aegis of yeshiva studies. The significance is clear: Later, they will also be absent from the work force. The low rate of work force participation among Haredi men is nudging the economy toward the Third World. Thus Haredi draft evasion is changing from a moral problem of discrimination to a strategic problem that threatens to damage our national resolve and cause the economy to collapse.

Still, it is hard not to sympathize with the High Court. It is not easy for it to make the decision that should be made - to draft the ultra-Orthodox - thereby bringing about a rift in the nation.

The Knesset is also evading the problem. The Tal Committee tried to solve it by means of a nonconfrontational, gradual process. But instead of taking advantage of this solution, the ultra-Orthodox, the IDF and the Finance Ministry joined forces - each for its own reasons - to cause the Tal Law to fail. Thus they wasted a precious decade. The fledgling civilian service and enlistment programs for Haredim are nothing more than a drop in the ocean of draft evasion.

There is no longer any choice but to set a cap on deferments. Those who are not included in the quota can make arrangements like those available in the religious Zionist community: They can go to hesder yeshivas, whose students do partial service, or a premilitary yeshiva program that allows participants to defer their service for two years. Yeshivas and yeshiva students that do not join this arrangement would not receive state funding. The ultra-Orthodox say proudly that they can get along on donations and do without government handouts. Let's see them do it.

This is neither a dream nor a fantasy. The political system has proven that it is capable of coming to its senses in times of trouble. That is what happened when it decided to drastically cut child allowances - a decision that seemed impossible a decade ago. All that needs to be done is to once again establish a coalition controlled by the secular and religious Zionist factions, like the second Ariel Sharon government.

Sooner or later it will happen - because the future of the state and Zionism depend on it. The question is how much damage will be done to our national resolve and our economy before that time arrives.

The author is deputy director general for research and public relations of Hidush, an association to promote equality and freedom of religion