Why the IDF 'Equal Burden' Bill Has Nothing to Do With Equality

The bill should, however, improve the political fortunes of both Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The new draft bill that’s been dubbed – misleadingly and for PR reasons – the “equalizing the burden” law is one of the most far-reaching, complex and problematic acts of legislation the Knesset is likely to pass. What it will not do is bring about equality, or the induction into the army of the ultra-Orthodox. However, at the conclusion of the never-ending process this legislation has undergone, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid will be able to brandish the fulfillment of his major election promise: application of the draft, under the law, to every young Jewish Israeli man.

As everyone knows, both God and the devil are in the details. The details that are hidden in each of the bill’s clauses are multiple and complicated. Moreover, there are those who argue that they are not constitutional and will not pass the test of the High Court of Justice. These details have to do not only with the draft and with the world of the Torah, but also with the country’s labor market.

The groundwork of the law was laid in painstaking work by Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid), the science and technology minister, in the framework of his eponymous committee. As the legislation moves into its final stretch now, here are a few comments about what happened this week in and around the committee chaired by MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), which is preparing the bill for the vote in the plenum:

Haredi anxiety: MKs Ariel Atias (Shas) and Meir Porush and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) have attended every committee session. They are not just present, but participate, banter and sometimes even take over the discussion. One member compared this situation to carp taking part in the supermarkets’ preparations for Rosh Hashanah. Because, what are these people after in a parliamentary forum that will decide the precise angle at which the ax will lop off their heads? They are in the opposition. After all, as long as Lapid and his 19-member faction are holding the Netanyahu government by the short hairs, the direction is clear and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

The prevailing view in the Shaked forum is that understandings have been reached between the ultra-Orthodox factions and Habayit Hayehudi. That assumption is based on the unconcealed desire of that party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, to rehabilitate his relations with the Haredim, which were dealt a mortal blow when he forged an alliance with Lapid in coalition talks a year ago. This assumption gained momentum a week ago, when Haredi circles were made privy to the transcript of a conversation between senior figures from an important ultra-Orthodox sect, in which MK Shaked was praised to the skies.

The supposition was further strengthened earlier this week when the Haredim voted, surprisingly, in favor of continuation of the scandalous privilege enshrined in the short, slashed service of soldiers in the hesder yeshiva program (which combines military service with religious studies).

Emptying of the pool: Everyone is talking about the draft, the draft and the draft that will or will not take place in July 2017 – when, in any case, there will be a new government. No one is talking about the emptying, emptying, emptying that is going to happen as soon as the law is enacted, in another month or two. The emptying refers to the “pool,” as Yesh Atid calls it, of Haredi yeshivas. Under the proposed law, every ultra-Orthodox male who will be 22 years old on the date to be determined can spread his wings, cut the chains that bind him to the yeshiva and enter the labor market without fear of being drafted.

The Finance Ministry and the Economy Ministry are talking about some 25,000 young Haredim who will cease to subsist from allowances and charity and donations, and will start looking for a livelihood. That sounds like a genuine boon for the economy. However, the Haredim are trying to delay the age stipulation to 24. They worry that the earlier their young people discover the profitable world outside the walls of the ghetto, the fonder they will become of what modernity has to offer, thus loosening the rabbis’ grip on them.

For her part, Shaked promised to try to get them that two-year delay. In the meantime, she is encountering the fierce opposition of Finance Minister Lapid. He wants an immediate, concrete achievement. The question is: What exactly is waiting out there for those thousands of young men who lack any sort of relevant education: jobs or unemployment? That’s of less interest to Lapid.

Gimme shelter: The new draft legislation, which contains criminal penalties for Haredim who are called up for military service but refuse to serve (as is the case with secular Israelis), is the most significant land mine to be laid on the path of the Netanyahu coalition. It’s the only issue over which Lapid is threatening to resign, and apparently he means every word. He has gone public with this in order to paint himself into a corner, and to emerge as a real man in the eyes of his voters, and he has said as much in private conversations with the prime minister.

Bennett, in contrast, is not threatening. He already has what he wanted: the continued abridgment of service for hesder soldiers, and the regularization of the legal status of the so-called high Zionist yeshivas, such as Beit El, Merkaz Harav and Shavei Hebron. According to a clause approved this week by the Shaked committee, students at those yeshivas will be able to defer their service every year until the age of 23 and then be inducted.

Bennett and Shaked used a very sophisticated tactic here. They supposedly fought tooth-and-nail against the criminal sanctions idea for the sake of their Haredi ‘bros. But very quietly, without anyone noticing, and thanks to the cooperation of the Haredim, they hit the jackpot among members of the community that is most important to them. As far as Habayit Hayehudi is concerned, it’s “mission accomplished.”

Shaked could already pack up and go home. But she is committed to finalizing the legislation and also to go on proving to the ultra-Orthodox that she is going out of her way for them so that criminal sanctions will not be applied to them.

If the political situation is so volatile, where is the prime minister? Why doesn’t he plunge into the swamp of legislative activity to salvage what he can? Well, that’s Netanyahu. He handles crises only when they blow up in his face, maybe a minute before. In the meantime, he’s letting Lapid and Bennett, along with Shaked and MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) wallow in the mire (“He’s indulging them,” his aides say). He’s promising the Haredim that as long as he’s at the helm, Torah students will not go to jail, and he’s promising Lapid also that as long as he’s at the helm, the compulsory-draft law will pass.

Theoretically, Netanyahu could pull a fast one on Lapid by waiting for the final vote in the Knesset, in another month or so, and then torpedoing the law, forcing Lapid to resign and bringing the Haredim into the government. But the prime minister doesn’t want to shake up the coalition. He understands that this is hardball, and that pushing Lapid into the opposition by quashing the draft law will only help the Yesh Atid leader to rise from the electoral ashes that have covered him for the past year – whereas establishing a right-wing-Haredi government (with Tzipi Livni as a drooping and temporary fig leaf) would be devastating for Netanyahu’s status.

Who’s the boss?: Three religious men can usually be found sitting behind energetic committee chair Shaked. One is the head of the high Zionist yeshivas, another is the head of the hesder yeshivas, and the third is an external legal figure, from the same community. They are Ayelet Shaked’s “kashrut supervisors.” They have veto power over everything that Shaked (a secular woman from north Tel Aviv) says. Whenever a subject relating to their yeshivas comes up, Shaked can say whatever she wants. But then one of the men goes over, whispers magic words in her ear – and she immediately falls into line with the religious imperative.

This week a proposal came up concerning the Zionist yeshivas. “Good idea,” Shaked said. “Let’s vote.” “They won’t let you,” MK Gafni (United Torah Judaism) warned her. Sure enough, even as he spoke, the regular ritual repeated itself: The head of the yeshivas came over, whispered some directive, and Shaked retreated.

Toward the rising sun

Where was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday afternoon, when the Knesset witnessed a whole circus of shtetl-like nationalistic, victimization whining, performed by the MKs of Habayit Hayehudi in response to a speech by the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz? We really needed a responsible adult to calm tempers and restore order.

The new Lieberman would undoubtedly have granted Schulz – a friend of Israel who committed the sin of expressing some more or less well-founded criticism (and in German!) – the respect due him. He would not have joined Naftali Bennett and his cohorts in running amok. Maybe he would have scolded the rabble-rousers and taught them a lesson in good manners. But Lieberman was just then en route to a working visit in Paris, and we were left to our own devices and ashamed at the sight of our legislature, in one of its ugliest moments – and ours, too.

Yes, the days when Lieberman stood at the Knesset rostrum and told President Hosni Mubarak to go to hell because of his refusal to visit Israel, are a thing of the past. Lieberman reinvents himself every few years, as if in a masked ball that never ends. A political source who knows him well compared him to a plane that is circling about in the sky without knowing where to land. Should it be on the far-right runway? Maybe in the stretch reserved for the militant, hot-headed politicians? Or would it be best to set down on the tarmac of the responsible, level-headed diplomats?

When it comes to Lieberman, things are never boring. He likes to make fun of the commentators who try to analyze his moves. They are regularly wrong; he is always consistent. He can zigzag wildly and with impressive speed from one lane to the next and in the same breath explain that nothing has changed: that this is what he always thought, always wrote. It’s the media that are distorting him.

The revamped Lieberman, the 2014 model, finds himself to the left of Netanyahu. His red line in an agreement with the Palestinians is the question of the return of refugees to Israel, and then there’s support of land and population swaps with the Palestinian Authority. He does not fall off his chair when the 1967 borders are mentioned, or when the idea is raised of handing over Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods to the PA. He has become the Americans’ favorite, and in Europe, too, he is being treated differently, getting a warm welcome.

Because everything starts and ends with politics for Lieberman, the question is: What’s he up to, and why? The prevailing view today about his intentions speaks of the following sophisticated plan: His greater moderation, reflected in both content and style, is meant in the first stage to induce the Americans to step up their pressure on the prime minister, and in the second stage to force Netanyahu to part from Likud and join him, so that in the future Lieberman will be the premier’s sole successor.

In the previous government (2009-2013), Netanyahu told foreign leaders that if he were to go a bridge too far, he would lose his government. “I don’t have Lieberman, I don’t have Shas, I don’t have the National Religious Party, I don’t have parts of Likud,” he would explain, and they would nod in agreement and empathize with his bitter fate.

By moving leftward, Lieberman is signaling to the Americans that they should not buy Netanyahu’s claim that he’s on a precipice and with one false move could fall into the abyss. Together with the 11 MKs of Yisrael Beiteinu (Lieberman’s party), Netanyahu has the necessary one-third support for a legal split in the Knesset. And if he wants to go for a daring peace move, he can form a new bloc, with Lieberman and Tzipi Livni, the remnants of Kadima and parts of Yesh Atid.

A few months ago, the Likud convention sent Lieberman a razor-sharp, crystal-clear message: He’s not wanted. Or, as he said to Mubarak: He can go to hell. They will not let him take over Likud from within. If he tries to get in through the door, he will be blocked; if through the window, he will be repulsed. From the sky, he will be intercepted. Without Likud, where will the politico who wants to become prime minister in the post-Bibi era turn? Yisrael Beiteinu is not a platform for the premiership. It’s a bloc that at its peak won 15 Knesset seats and has been in a decline ever since.

The only option is for Lieberman to ride toward the rising sun on Netanuyahu’s back as his partner at the head of a moderate, center-right camp. And the way to get there is to separate the premier from his party. And the way to get there is for him to shed his extremist skin and grow soft, silky fur instead. Whether that’s Lieberman’s intention or not, only he knows. The only sure thing is that we are definitely wrong about him again.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.

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