Israel's ultra-Orthodox Leaders Showing More Willingness to Discuss IDF Draft

In current coalition talks, two documents are often mentioned but seldom seen. They concern differing approaches to the problem of how to share the military burden, and they hold the key to Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to form a new government.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Once every few months, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz pays a short visit to the Western Wall.

The presence of the commander, in uniform and surrounded by guards, never fails to create a big stir among worshipers in the area - first and foremost, young ultra-Orthodox men. Alongside sheer curiosity about Gantz himself, these yeshiva students are naturally worried about their fate and they pepper the army chief with a barrage of questions.

In contrast to other trips, during Gantz's most recent visit, it was not hard to observe that these ultra-Orthodox men realize that a fundamental change is about to take place: The conscription model employed for generations in Israel, under which secular and religious-Zionist men carried the three-year burden of military service while their Haredi compatriots immersed themselves in Torah study, will vanish from the earth. Just the small question of what will replace it remains to be answered.

It would appear that the first stirring of recognition has also permeated within the ultra-Orthodox leaders. Outgoing Housing Minister Ariel Atias, one of Shas' top politicians, articulated this understanding immediately after the Plesner Committee report - looking at ways of "sharing the burden" - was self-published by Yohanan Plesner last summer: what has been is not what is to be.

For many months, ultra-Orthodox men - encouraged by their rabbis - believed the opposite: that what is being sought will never come to fruition. Very much like the rabbis who headed the religious-Zionist camp on the eve of the pullout from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, Haredi men expected that some divine intervention would derail this huge scheme and rescue the Torah scholars. But that apparently will not happen, and this realization is evident among Haredim at the Western Wall, and also among leaders of the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.

Nonethless, the ultra-Orthodox retain considerable power to constrain developments. It appears they still possess significant maneuvering room that will allow them to reduce the dimensions of the impending draft reform, significantly erode its impact and, in particular, protract the change so that it is instituted over as many years as possible.

As it turns out, Yair Lapid - whose election, combined with the High Court's nullification last year of the Tal Law, is what put the question of equality of army service at the forefront of current government coalition negotiations - is also the person who added a codicil to the reform idea that allays Haredi anxieties. Lapid's proposal to defer the practical implementation of the new draft model for five years offers the ultra-Orthodox a relatively long time to inure themselves to the change, if not to completely scuttle it. (It has been claimed recently that Lapid has changed his position, but if so, this has not been officially presented to the public. )

The name of the game in negotiations between political parties right now is the Kandel framework. Before the election, talk centered on relatively far-reaching proposals formulated by the Plesner Committee, and also on the possibility of adopting a modified, "Plesner Lite" plan.

Now, discussions are fastened to a new framework put together by National Economic Council head Prof. Eugene Kandel for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The basic terms of Kandel's proposal ask for much less than what former Kadima MK Plesner tried to have implemented. Kandel, like Lapid, talks about a five-year transition. After this period, more than 60 percent of young ultra-Orthodox men, ages 18 to 24, would be drafted into either the IDF or national service.

Unlike the Plesner plan, which stipulated specific goals, Kandel's program points broadly to goals whose nonfulfillment could be justified by appeals to higher powers. Moreover, as Yair Ettinger commented Thursday, if the Kandel framework has ever been written down on paper, nobody has ever seen it.

During coalition talks with delegates of various parties, only the general lines of the Kandel plan are mentioned; no written documents are in sight. Shas leaders, who met with Kandel this week, oppose his proposal on the grounds that it is too extreme. They say its draft goals appear too high. In the eyes of Shas’ leaders, the goals pose a genuine threat to the Torah world.

‘Non-paper’ talk

As it turns out, the ultra-Orthodox have a document of their own, though they maintain a safe distance from it for denial purposes. During coalition talks, a kind of “non-paper” has been relayed to the Prime Minister’s Office: A position paper drafted by an independent expert, it has been reviewed by several top figures from the Haredi parties. Netanyahu too apparently reviewed the proposal some two months before the election, and he is now reexamining its relevance. Concurrently, the proposal has reached Lapid’s negotiation team through back channels.

No ultra-Orthodox politician can publicly stand behind such a document, and so it is convenient for those who have perused it to deny its existence. The authoritative rabbis from Shas and United Torah Judaism fully understand that the political winds have changed to the Haredi community’s detriment, yet they refuse to be seen as having willfully agreed to a new conscription model that obligates them to deep-rooted compromises.

At most, these rabbinical leaders will only agree for ultra-Orthodox parties to join the coalition on the basis of a toned-down model, and only after they have demonstrated to the world that the compromise was coercively imposed on them. The fact that the document is not officially presented by the Haredim enables these same leaders to use it to test positions in negotiations, without committing themselves and without presenting a plan that makes it appear as though they are willing, at this stage, to accept significant concessions.

Surprisingly, the non-paper is not as far removed from the Kandel framework as one might assume. The document suggests that Shas and United Torah Judaism are liable to agree, grudgingly, to a significant increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox men involved in national service and in the IDF.

The intention is to reach, within five years, a target of some 2,000 ultra-Orthodox men drafted annually, and a comparable number of Haredim engaged in national service. Under certain conditions, the ultra-Orthodox leaders could agree to an arrangement whereby, in any given year, a little less than 50 percent of eligible men would be sent to either army or national service.

In 2012, some 1,400 of the year’s eligible ultra-Orthodox men were drafted by the IDF: About a third of them went straight into combat units; more than half inducted into “Shahar” tracks ‏(the Hebrew acronym refers to service in technological and logistical areas‏); and the remainder were yeshiva drop-outs who were drafted like anyone else into an assortment of IDF roles.

Facing mounting political pressure, the Haredim will apparently agree to a gradual increase in these numbers. However, the new plans are based on creative definitions of what counts as conscription figures, and these interpretations may not be acceptable to other coalition parties.

According to the document, the existing Shahar programs can be expanded to some extent. In addition, there is potential of another 300-plus young people from those currently studying in the technology classrooms opened last year for the ultra-Orthodox by the Education Ministry ‏(its first class of students are now in 10th grade‏). Among other solutions, a framework for soldier-teachers could be revived. This would engage persons who are currently enrolled in Shas educational institutions, or in the independent education network maintained by United Torah Judaism.

The ultra-Orthodox parties will also agree to enlarge the number of persons who serve in the Haredi Nahal battalion from 100 to 200 soldiers a year. Haredi spokesmen claim − and their allegation has some backing among IDF General Staff officers − that the existing Nahal battalion is not really comprised of ultra-Orthodox soldiers. They say that more than half the soldiers who serve in it come from the Zionist-oriented ultra-Orthodox ‏(“Hardal”‏) community, including many settlers who prefer serving in army frameworks that are devoid of women soldiers.

The calculation in the document rests on the assumption that each year the IDF drafts some 300 ultra-Orthodox men who are not classified as Haredim. ‏(These are largely ultra-Orthodox men who have graduated from Sephardic educational institutions in development towns, and who do not ask to be recognized as yeshiva pupils.‏)

There are, of course, other problems. As things stand right now, the Kandel framework is accepted only by Likud. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, which this week became the first party to officially join Netanyahu’s third government coalition, favors a completely different framework − which was drafted for it by novice MK ‏(and former head of the IDF’s Human Resources Directorate‏) Maj. Gen. ‏(res.‏) Elazar Stern. The fact that this same person previously drafted an only slightly different framework for Lapid, who is currently hunkering down in the opposition, constitutes one of the wonders of Israeli politics.

Return to Plesner

MK Naftali Bennett, the Habayit Hayehudi party leader who this week conducted a highly publicized, embrace-filled visit to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, expressed support a few months ago for what is, from the Haredi standpoint, a much more taxing model − that of the Plesner Committee.

In the meantime, Bennett appears to have coordinated positions on this issue with his new pal, Yair Lapid. The Habayit Hayehudi party expresses reservations about the Kandel framework, which ‏(as stated‏) isn’t accepted by the ultra-Orthodox and which demands a higher level of concessions than this non-paper document.

And even Shaul Mofaz’s minuscule Kadima party, which has been considered a surefire candidate for inclusion in the government, is reluctant to favor a significantly modified conscription plan. Though Mofaz has backtracked and adopted contradictory positions in recent years, he faces one major problem: Last summer he broke up his short-lived coalition partnership with Netanyahu because the prime minister refused to implement the Plesner Committee’s plan. Plesner, the number three man on Kadima’s Knesset slate ‏(only the top two were elected‏), is pressuring Mofaz not to come across as a politician who has compromised his final remaining principle.

Senior IDF officers are closely monitoring all these developments, though they maintain a careful policy of nonintervention. As things stand right now, about 2,000 Haredim serve in the IDF. Out of these, the 1,400 soldiers who were drafted last year can easily be supplemented and be brought up to a total this year of 2,000 − should the political leadership decide in favor of the addition.

Military programs for ultra-Orthodox soldiers that were formulated for the Plesner Committee have subsequently been updated and modified. According to the position it presented to the Plesner panel, the army does not want to form a Haredi brigade; apparently it will support the establishment of ultra-Orthodox battalions that would be added to the Nahal Haredi battalion. One ultra-Orthodox battalion might be formed for Home Front roles, or to serve with Iron Dome antimissile batteries.

As far as the IDF is concerned, there is one line that should not be crossed: The army does not want too large a mass of conscripts who have a homogeneous background, one that is unlike those of other conscripts and that is liable to influence the nonpartisan, patriotic character that the army endeavors to maintain in its ranks today.

In other words, small ultra-Orthodox army enclaves that are closed off to women can be expanded. The army believes, however, that it would be wrong to create frameworks that are too large and which operate according to a different code, and cause still greater damage to efforts to integrate women soldiers into significant army roles.

End of basic training of the Nahal brigade's Netza Yehuda battalion at Masada 2012Credit: Alex Levac
No one has seen Kendel's plan on paper.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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