Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, May 8, 2012.
Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Kadima head Shaul Mofaz during joint news conference, Jerusalem, May 8, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to begin talks with his coalition partners on Thursday in an effort to forge compromise legislation governing military and civilian national service by the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.

Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that he accepts some of the principles proposed by the Plesner Committee, which he set up to draft such legislation, but then disbanded last week after several of his coalition partners said they had lost faith in it. But Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz has previously said his party insists on the Plesner recommendations being accepted in full, and party sources declined to say whether Netanyahu's partial acceptance of the panel's work would be sufficient to allow Kadima to remain in the governing coalition.

"We are on the brink of a historic change in Israeli society," Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "The existing situation cannot continue. The Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) must be integrated into military service. They and Israeli Arabs must also be integrated into civilian service."

The Plesner recommendations, he said, "contain important principles in this direction, but a more thorough approach toward integrating Arabs into civilian service is needed." He thereby sided with two coalition partners, Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, whose main objection to the Plesner proposal was that it would have required only a minority of Arabs to do any form of service.

Netanyahu said he plans to submit legislation that will apply to both Arabs and Haredim. "I'm determined to bring about a dramatic increase in the proportion who share the burden [of service] among Haredim and Arabs alike," he said. "We will no longer permit the situation of those who don't serve to be equal to that of those who do. Draft-dodgers won't get what those who serve do."

Mofaz expressed disappointed with Netanyahu's statement, and saying that it "avoids accepting the principles of the [Plesner] committee on equality in the national service draft, and clear statements of service for all."

"Integration of Israeli Arabs in the civil service should be based on the recommendations of the committee's report. The prime minister's statement evades the the major challenge of fixing the illegality and injustice of the exemption of the ultra-Orthodox population [from conscription]. The citizens of Israel were expecting clear statements from the prime minister."

Netanyahu's announcement came a few hours after Mofaz convened Kadima's Knesset faction to approve an ultimatum to the premier. The Plesner proposal, Mofaz said, is "the first real test of our partnership with the prime minister and [his] Likud party. I expect the prime minister to adopt the committee's decisions. This is a condition of our remaining in the government."

Mofaz said the two issues over which he would not compromise are a significant increase in the number of Haredim doing military service and the imposition of penalties on those who do not do any form of service. The latter is a red flag for Netanyahu's two Haredi coalition partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Kadima will make a final decision on whether to quit the coalition "within days," Mofaz added. Other party sources said the deadline would be the Kadima faction meeting on Monday afternoon.

But while Kadima is standing firmly behind the Plesner proposal, the panel's chairman, Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, is the only member of the committee who ultimately signed its final report. One other committee member, Prof. Yedidia Stern, did praise the report, but said he could not accept some of its recommendations. In particular, he thought the penalties it would impose on Haredim who do not serve were too severe.

Shas chairman Eli Yishai said he is working on his own bill to perpetuate the existing draft exemptions for yeshiva students - though he declined to explain how such a bill would survive a court challenge. New legislation is needed primarily because the High Court of Justice struck down the last law authorizing yeshiva draft exemptions, the so-called Tal Law, as unconstitutional.

Shas has indicated privately that it could live with legislation to reduce state funding for yeshivas if the number of Haredim doing some form of service fails to meet targets set by the government, but not with legislation imposing sanctions on individuals. Publicly, however, Yishai has termed any form of sanctions unacceptable.

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