Why the ultra-Orthodox Enlistment Law Matters

The committee charged with investigating a new policy will present its findings to the government at the start of next month.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Plesner Committee, which was appointed to find an alternative to the current arrangement in which ultra-Orthodox are not recruited into the Israel Defense Forces, is reaching the final phase of its investigations.

The committee, which is headed by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), will present its findings to the government at the start of next month, in order to meet the deadline set by Israel's High Court of Justice when it decided to reject the Tal Law.

The recent protest by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, wailing in mourning and warning against the destruction it would inflict, is an indication of the significance that the community puts on the committee's decision.

As opposed to the past, the military is no longer passive on the subject. Representatives of the IDF General Staff's manpower department told the committee that the military is willing and ready to absorb thousands of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, first and foremost in the framework of independent combat units (the intention is to establish two or three more ultra-Orthodox Nahal battalions, which will not include any women), as well as technological positions in the Air Force. Ultra-Orthodox men will also serve in police units and in the Shin Bet security service.

The military's change in policy stems from two reasons: the first is a lack of combat soldiers in the face of various missions. A decline is expected for each recruitment cycle, at least until 2015. Thus, the military needs the ultra-Orthodox and is willing to pay the price for the task.

The second reason, which is not stated openly, touches on the issue of inequality. Due to the high natural growth in the ultra-Orthodox sector, 13% receive army exemptions (in 12 years, it is estimated that the rate will jump to 30%).

As time goes on, it will be harder for the military to convince an 18-year-old, whether secular or national religious, that he must be willing to sacrifice his life as a combat soldier, while such a high percentage of people his age are exempt from doing so. Already today, soldiers who serve in IDF combat units do so in a form of volunteering, even if the army does not define it as such.

Should the current situation continue, enlistment into the military itself may come to be seen as a form of volunteering within a few years, creating a situation in which willingness to join may decline.

The summer's social protest is sputtering for now, and became trapped this past Saturday due to the clashes with police in Tel Aviv. But further down the road, it may so happen that the protest's agenda may become integrated with the growing public anger over the question of ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

Netanyahu, who knows well how to recognize such tendencies, is searching for a solution to get him out of the mud. Over the coming week, Netanyahu will be holding talks with Plesner tro try to come up with a final direction for the committee's conclusions.

The disagreement is over two questions: 1) whether to set targets or quotas (Plesner wants a permanent, limited quota of Haredi prodigies who will receive exemptions from torah studies; the ultra-Orthodox want specific numbers for enlistment, which have no real practical significance) and 2) the intensity of sanctions (Plesner seeks to place personal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox that do not enlist, as well as institutional sanctions on yeshivas that will refuse to send them to the military; Netanyahu is searching for a "soft" solution that will not upset the ultra-Orthodox).

Plesner's CV looks like it was created by a computer program intended to develop an improved sample of the Israeli politician: an officer in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, a master's degree from Harvard, who went to the Knesset after finding success in the hi-tech industry.

His first steps in the field, as an opposition member and a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, point to his serious work and commitment to the public.

But now, as he comes to his first big test as a public servant, he will have to contend with three ex-members from his unit – Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz.

The trio has already been able to bury or get through such crises in the past. This time, at least according to their public statements, they are interested in a real solution.

The honesty underlying the intentions of Netanytahu, Barak and Mofaz, as well as Plesner's political qualifications, will be tested in the coming weeks. If they fail, they should expect both reproaching from the High Court, as well as a renewed spirit for the social justice protests.

Ultra-Orthodox protest against the enlistment into the IDF in the Mea She'arim Quarter in Jerusalem.Credit: Shiran Granot



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