Religious Zionism Emerging as Israel's Most Powerful Pressure Group

While Yair Lapid won his fight over drafting the ultra-Orthodox to the IDF, the next conflict will sprout out of the inequality between soldiers from hesder yeshivas and their fellow combatants.

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From the moment Finance Minister Yair Lapid returned Monday to volumes reminiscent of his election-campaign days, it was safe to assume that an agreement would be reached over the drafting of the ultra-Orthodox in three years and imposing criminal penalties for draft-dodgers among them.

It was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon who threw these particular red herrings into the mix, demanding from the Perry committee that he will have the final say over imposing the draft on Haredi men in 2016. He may have acted in the spirit of the commander, Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is doubtful the prime minister gave Ya’alon the support needed to pass such a resolution.

Lapid threatened to leave the coalition, and even if he never intended to actually bolt, the threat was sufficient for Netanyahu’s inner circle to say last night that Lapid’s Yesh Atid party had invented, or at least inflated, the conflict.

Despite the fact that committee chairman MK Jacob Perry ‏(Yesh Atid‏) continued to discuss the issue with Ya’alon late into the night one can assume a solution will be found. As a rule, it seems the prime minister cares much less about the specific model of Haredi conscription than he does about Syria and Iran.

Netanyahu will grant most of Lapid’s demands and charge on forward, assuming that political circumstances − and the degree of Haredi opposition to the proposed draft − will dictate the new reality during the three-years interim, and that eventually the Israeli public will lose interest in any event.

In another battle, which was probably less important, Yesh Atid was squarely defeated without putting up a fight. Habayit Hayehudi almost effortlessly won the argument over extending the duration of military service for hesder yeshiva students, who combine army service with religious studies. The Perry committee agreed to a negligible, one-month extension, a far cry from Yesh Atid’s original demand for an eight-month extension, to two full years.

Lapid argued that without this extension the new draft model for Haredim would create a new inequality, since even ultra-Orthodox men would serve for longer than the hesder students. Asked for his opinion in the matter, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett delivered a long speech on the contribution of religious Zionism to the Israel Defense Forces, a contribution that indeed cannot be disputed.

But both sides are missing the point, even if it seems that Bennett is doing so willfully. The problem isn’t the theoretical potential injustice to the Haredi conscripts, but rather the present inequality between the hesder students and other combat soldiers: the former will serve for a mere 17 months, while the latter will serve for 36 months ‏(or slightly less if service durations are shortened for all.‏)

This inequality is already causing anger among regular duty commanders, including religious soldiers. The impressive service of the graduates of religious military preparatory programs cannot hide the problem. Habayit Hayehudi’s victory can teach us two things: Bennett and his party’s new leadership continue to take care of their own, despite their professed love for their coalition partners; second, religious Zionism will be the most powerful pressure group on Netanyahu’s third term, probably even more than in the first two. This will become even more significant in the event that the fate of the West Bank settlements come into question.

The minimal extension of the hesder students’ service is also bad news for the IDF. The reduction of the Haredi service term was forced on the IDF due to public expectations and Lapid’s pressure. Still, the IDF expected to receive something in return to compensate for the loss of available manpower in combat units. No such compensation is now expected, definitely not through the hesder students. 

Religious Israel Defense Force soldiers praying, 2007.Credit: Alex Levac

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