haredim ultra-Orthodox - Micha Odenheimer  - October 28 2010
Ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshiva. Photo by Micha Odenheimer
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Tuesday’s ruling by the High Court of Justice gave final authority for what was already common knowledge: Within five months at most the Tal Law − which was the basis for the increasing shirking of military service by young ultra-Orthodox men − will be relegated to the trash can of history. The Knesset and the cabinet will be hard-pressed to come up with a replacement − not as a stopgap measure, a temporary order or a political maneuver, but rather as a real, new law.

According to the High Court’s directive the new law must be − believe it or not − proportionate, egalitarian and constitutional, three words that send shivers down the spines of Haredi politicians. These three words began ticking last night, like the timer on a powerful bomb, in the corridors of the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, which has been rapidly disintegrating since the Natan Eshel affair broke. For Netanyahu’s coalition, which in any case is already eyeing the next election, an issue such as this can be explosive enough to bring down the whole building. The Haredi parties in the coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism, will find it hard to live with the practical results of the ruling, even if, at the moment, that seems remote. Until two or three weeks ago Netanyahu still harbored the hope that he could extend the law for another five years. Maybe he was hoping that by then peace will reign and Israel will have no need for an army. Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke of a one-year extension. But the High Court declared on Tuesday: not five years, not even five hours; some things must be destroyed, better later than never.

The Tal Law, conceived as a result of a High Court ruling 14 years ago, was put out of its misery on Tuesday by the very same, highly respected, court. In the next few weeks we can expect a deluge of bills concerning Haredi military, national, community or civil service. Everyone, except for the Haredi and Arab political parties, will be trying to cash in.

Last month, at a photo-op with the leaders of an equal-conscription lobby, Netanyahu promised that the government would propose a new law with which they would “be pleased.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, declared that he won’t stand for any trick or maneuver that would allow Haredim to continue evading military service. Barak also intends to propose a bill of his own to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, while his party, Atzmaut, plans to submit a private bill in the Knesset.

Kadima won’t wait either. Nor will Meretz, which initiated the High Court petition that led to Tuesday’s ruling. Neither will Labor, whose chairwoman, MK Shelly Yachimovich, declared on Tuesday that she would reach out to all parties in the Knesset and would try to formulate a “bold and feasible” proposal.

Will any of these bills lead tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox to the recruiting offices by August? One can be skeptical about that. Will the Tal Law and the Haredi-secular relationship play a huge part in the next election? Don’t bet against it. Still, the main question at this point in time is whether Netanyahu, who is well aware of the popularity of Haredi-drafting bravado, is mentally ready to divorce his natural partners, the Haredi parties, and to propose a bill that would put an end to the long relationship between Likud and these parties? Netanyahu won’t be able to defer that decision for too long. By the summer, or even earlier, he will have to make up his mind.