Ultra-Orthodox soldier at IDF recruitment base.
Ultra-Orthodox soldier at IDF recruitment base. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Gradualism gets a bad rap. But then, rapid change isn't all that it's cracked up to be, either. Ask American voters, who selected an inexperienced senator for their president just because he symbolized total change. Ask Arab democratic activists, who wanted a total and immediate break from the dictatorships under which they had been living for generation. Ask the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who flocked to the streets last summer demanding a new set of social priorities.

In all these cases, the disappointment that came after the short-lived exhilaration was as total as it should have been expected. And now Israeli politicians are trying to convince their public that one High Court decision can sweep away a system that has been in place for 63 years, just like that.

The 6-3 ruling by the judges on Tuesday, that the Tal Law - which allows for the exemption of yeshiva students from military service - fails to confirm to basic standards of equality and is therefore unconstitutional, deserves to be called a landmark decision. Contrary to its "activist" image, Israel's Supreme Court is extremely reluctant to strike down laws passed by the Knesset. But the jubilation of the politicians - all the way from Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu ) to Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) - is misplaced. They are the ones who are going to have to find an alternative arrangement. And it won't be easy.

Aside from the obvious - that if legally required to join up, the entire Haredi community will disobey and there are not enough prison cells or police to arrest and detain 62,000 men - the Israel Defense Forces does not have the plans or the resources to deal with a sudden influx of new ultra-Orthodox recruits with their special requirements.

Even if those already exempted are allowed to remain in yeshivas, the army still cannot immediately deal with the 9,000 young Haredi men who reach military age each year. Over the course of five years, perhaps, some new units could be opened, reservists would be called up less frequently and maybe even the three-year compulsory service period shortened by a few months, but it is not just a question of numbers.

The army generals presently having trouble filling the ranks of all the combat units would be delighted to boost the IDF's intake. But if you tell them that these additional soldiers have special dietary requirements, cannot serve with women and, as a result of many of them being married and with children before the age of 21, will have to be paid living wages - and not the pocket money that regular soldiers currently receive - they will prefer to stick to the current force levels.

And as we have recently seen, the army can barely cope with the religious soldiers it already has. A Haredi division is beyond its capacity.

The fact that a majority (just ) of Israelis have to serve while others are exempt rankles with many, rightly, but you have to ask: Would solving that issue, if it was at all possible, also solve Israel's biggest long-term problem? That problem is the lack of integration of two growing segments of the population: the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arabs into the workplace and society at large.

Excluded communities

The majority who go to the army may be shouldering an unequal share of the burden, but the fact remains that while they work hard for a living, they are also much better off by any standard and have many more opportunities than those who stay out of the IDF and the workplace. Inequality works both ways.

There is a belief that army service is the gateway to acceptance in Israeli society, but that is a myth in many cases. Talk to the soldiers of the Bedouin Desert Patrol Battalion, many of whom return on weekends to "unrecognized" villages without electricity and running water, and after being discharged find gainful employment tough to come by due to a lack of opportunities and minimal educational requirements.

Two large communities have been excluded, partly by their own fault, from the Israeli mainstream - though that doesn't absolve anyone from responsibility - and the fact that the overwhelming majority of Arab and ultra-Orthodox Israelis do not serve in the army is more of a symptom than a cause. Any solution that will only take into account the needs of one community, or try to deal with just the issue of army service, will ultimately fail, just as the now disqualified law, originally drafted by the Tal Commission with the best of intentions, has failed.

To deal with the cause, a clear set of priorities has to be maintained in which education, employment and inclusion must all come before military service. None of these changes can be effected through coercion, but since most of the rabbis and many Haredi and Arab politicians have been doing their communities a disservice for decades by intentionally excluding them for narrow and selfish gains, cooperation with the current leaderships, while desirable, may not be possible. However, that is not an insurmountable obstacle. No one today can prevent a government from going over the community leaders' heads and proposing a new deal to young Arab and Haredi men and women.

The High Court ruling may have kicked the Knesset into a legal abyss, but it has also given the politicians a chance to come up with a new social contract balancing the demands, opportunities and benefits of education, jobs, housing and national - not necessarily military - service. Such a contract will take time to plan and needs a certain degree of consensus for implementation, which will again take years. Don't expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his falling-apart-at-the-seams office and on the brink of a war with Iran, to draft that new social contract in these months before elections.

It is probably too much to expect any political party to place such a plan at the center of its election manifesto; as it is, they will all be falling over themselves to compete with Yair Lapid's populist anti-Haredi rhetoric and Lieberman's xenophobia. Long-term plans and consensus-seeking traditionally lose out at the ballot box to the snake oil promises of overnight change. Only a freshly elected government with a renewed mandate will have the opportunity to gradually make the necessary changes.

Gradualism is a lot less sexy than Lapid and the Rothschild Boulevard protests, but given a chance it will actually yield results.