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If it ain't broke, don't fix it, goes the old adage. But the Tal Law is broke. The question is whether it can be fixed.

The basic flaw in the Tal Law was that it provided legislative justification for continuing a situation where not all of Israel's citizens were obliged to participate in the defense of the country. Although the intentions of the members of the committee that recommended the law were the best - to provide incentives for at least some ultra-Orthodox young men to do their military service or enter the workforce, and thus gradually improve if not rectify an intolerable situation - they did what is unpardonable in a democratic society. They legalized preferential treatment for some citizens on the basis of their religious affiliation.

As it turned out, the law did not even achieve the limited goals that had been set for it. The "improved" Tal Law, whose passage is the first objective of the expanded coalition, is intended to do more of the same: as proposed, it will legitimize the exemption of ultra-Orthodox young men from military service even as it attempts to decrease the number of those exemptions.

Equality of rights and equality of obligations is a fundamental tenet in a democratic society. It is sometimes honored more in the breach, but deviations from this principle when they exist should not be given legitimacy by being enshrined in the book of laws. Discrimination should not be legalized, even if on occasion it exists in practice. Where it exists it should be eliminated as fast as is realistically possible. Legislating laws that permit discrimination is not the answer.

There's no denying it: Correcting a situation where massive exemptions from military service have been given to ultra-Orthodox young men for many years poses seemingly insoluble problems. Common sense dictates that the correction will have to be carried out gradually. But does that mean the inequality that has existed for so long must now be given a legal stamp of approval, even as part of an attempt to rectify the situation gradually? Does this mean an additional element of discrimination should be introduced by offering ultra-Orthodox young men the opportunity to choose national service instead of military service, an option that is not offered other young men being drafted into the military? Whatever measures are taken to correct a long-existing inequality, that inequality should not be compounded by legalizing it.

All of Israel's citizens are equal. So why is the uproar over exemptions from military service focused only on ultra-Orthodox Jews? An even larger number of Moslem and Christian Arab citizens do not participate in the defense of the country as do most Jewish and all Druze citizens. For years they have been exempted from military service by an administrative decision taken by the defense minister year after year, just like the exemptions granted to the ultra-Orthodox. It is a gross deviation from the principles of equality that are the foundation of any democratic society. And yet it is passed over in silence.

It is sometimes suggested that you cannot expect Israel's Arab citizens to participate in the defense of this country against its Arab enemies. Can you expect Arabs to fight Arabs? it is asked. As if Arabs were not fighting Arabs all over the Middle East. As if the Israel Defense Forces' Druze soldiers are not among the its best, and forgetting that the Bedouin infantry battalion is doing an excellent job in the south. (And forgetting, too, that the Iranian ayatollahs who threaten Israel with extinction are not Arabs. ) As if Israel's Arab citizens should be granted all the rights of citizenship without taking on all the citizen's obligations.

Here, too, common sense tells us that the solution must be gradually applied. It so happens that this is easier to do than in the case of the ultra-Orthodox. Israel's Arab community is heterogeneous - Moslem and various Christian denominations, Bedouin, urbanites and villagers. The exemptions granted from military service can be lifted one segment at a time, until all Arab citizens share the ultimate obligation of citizenship - defense of the country - with the rest of Israel's citizens.

The goal must be universal military service. It can be reached gradually, but not by legalizing inequality.