Haredi Demonstrations Against Military Draft Only Help Yair Lapid

The moment of truth for IDF enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Israelis is in the distant future, so despite mass protests and Knesset votes, threats should be taken with a grain of salt.

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The decisive week of sessions for the drawing up of the new Haredi draft law will start Sunday in the Knesset. The Shaked Comittee's voting will commence Tuesday, and marathon late-night sessions have been scheduled. The committee members—headed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi)—have expressed an intention to complete the process of drafting the proposed law by the week's end.

But it is doubtful they will manage to meet that deadline. A few weeks ago the committee had to struggle for several days before managing to pass the wording of the civilian national service law, due largely to the numerous objections presented by Haredi Knesset members.

The Shaked Committee is not the final station, of course, in the draft law affair. The next step would be a vote in the Knesset, which will most likely occur around mid- March, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indeed travels to Washington for the AIPAC conference in early March. Until then, Likud and its leader are keeping almost entirely out of the legislative fray.

It is the two largest coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, who are wrestling over the law's wording while the objections of the Haredi parties are heard in the background. The two representatives of Likud—Yisrael Beiteinu on the Shaked Committee are exhibiting minimal activity so far in the legislative process.

Last week, a sense of urgency was injected into the debates when the High Court of Justice issued an injunction freezing the transfer of funds to Haredi yeshivas due to the delays in passing the new military service law. Thousands of Haredi demonstrators blocked roads to protest the court's decision and the drafting of the new law.

MK Shaked is now attempting to speed up the passage of the law's final version through the committee. But it seems that at least at this stage the protests are of limited importance. To a degree, they even serve the interests of the clashing sides.

The Haredi rabbis are allowing the more excitable portions of their public to let off some steam early on. In doing so, the demonstrators are aiding Yesh Atid by allowing the head of the party, Yair Lapid, to show his voters that he is still determined to implement one of his central campaign promises.

This is how things looked at the end of last week: Lapid seemed poised to score a victory on an issue he considers central—the matter of imposing criminal sanctions rather than only financial ones if the Haredim fail to meet the future enlistment quotas. But no less than four years will pass - after the passing of legislation - passed - before such sanctions would be enacted, if at all. And now a compromise proposed by MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) suggests to extend the legislation by another six months, a period in which the cabinet can yet again re-examine the issue.

Four, maybe four and a half, years are an eternity in Israeli political terms. Most likely, the rabbis will tell themselves it is reasonable to imagine that by then the Haredi parties will have returned to their beloved place at the heart of the coalition, from where they will be able to cancel the decree altogether.

Despite flowery talk of a historic turning point (from Yesh Atid), and, on the opposing side, of a timeless tragedy (from United Torah Judaism and Shas), the moment of truth for the new enlistment model is still far, far off. Therefore, despite the mass protests expected as the Knesset votes in the coming month, it might be advisable to take the threats aired in recent days concerning a Haredi fight to the death against enforcement of the new law with a grain of salt.

One significant question has yet to be decided by the committee members: The apparent intention to extend women's mandatory army service by four months, making it a 28-month-long period. If such a decision is passed and at the same time the draft requirement is applied to Haredim, Habayit Hayehudi's insistence to extend the period of service of Hesder yeshiva students by only one month (to only 17 months) will once again stand out as an absurdity.

The very party which prides itself of the military devotion of its voters, would not be bothered by the fact women will serve in the armed forces significantly longer than Hesder yeshiva students. It seems a fair bet that the idea of lengthening the Hesder yeshiva students' army service to two years will not materialize. Interviews Lapid gave over the past few days suggest that, despite his reservations about this issue, he does not plan on confronting his partner Naftali Bennett over it.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis protest the government's move to draft yeshiva students to the Israel Defense Forces, Feb. 6, 2014.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Haredi soldiers praying at Massada. Credit: Alex Levac

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