Analysis / The Army and Treasury Know Best

The story of the Tal Law is a classic "Yes, Minister" tale. So the government decided to implement the law, because it believes that Israeli society has an interest in integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the work force? Big deal. The army and the Finance Ministry know better, and they oppose the law. Thus Justice Minister Tzipi Livni did not tell the prime minister that implementing the law had failed, she wrote that large parts of it were never implemented at all. And since the law was a package deal, this essentially means the entire law was never implemented. It was deliberately torpedoed.

The law allows 22-year-old yeshiva students to take a "year of decision" during which they can study or work without being drafted. Afterward, they can either return to yeshiva studies or complete a shortened form of military or civil service.

Civil service was supposed to be the main mechanism for implementing the law. However, the treasury dislikes civil service, which involves expensive social service projects of the type it has been trying to cut. Thus two and a half years after the law took effect in February 2003, the treasury and the Welfare Ministry had still not resolved a dispute over how much to pay people in civil service. It is difficult not to conclude that they have not tried very hard. What is needed, therefore, is a rapid and explicit decision by the prime minister.

The treasury has also sabotaged civil service in another way. In July 2003, it persuaded the Knesset to pass an amendment to the Tal Law that enables yeshiva students to work or attend university part-time, alongside their yeshiva studies, once they turn 23. But if so, why should they leave the yeshiva and do national service, whether military or civilian?

The Tal Committee, which drafted the Tal Law, was troubled by the issue of discrimination. Nevertheless, it recommended that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students be required to do only four months of military service following their decision year, as opposed to the three years required for other men, in order to encourage the yeshiva students to take this route.

The army, however, decided that a 23-year-old Haredi yeshiva student would have to serve a full three years, as if he were 18; if he were already 24 and had at least one child, he would have to serve two years. It argued that anything less would be unfair to all the non-Haredi men who serve three-year terms.

But what are the chances that a 23-year-old yeshiva student will decide to do three years of army service rather than return to the yeshiva? The result of the army's decision, Livni noted, is that Haredim simply do not serve in the army at all, thereby worsening the unfairness, while also distancing them from Israeli life. She therefore recommended instituting shorter terms of service for yeshiva students.

But will her recommendation have any effect? Not necessarily. After all, she is only a minister - not a senior army officer or treasury official.