Barak Must Not Cave to the Haredim Again

A quota must be set, beyond which no new students will be added to the arrangement for deferring yeshiva students from military service.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak is right. If there is one issue that justifies a coalition crisis, it is the effort to halt the extraordinary rise in the number of yeshiva students who evade military service. Experience shows, however, that on this issue Barak tends to fight like a lion and go down like a fly. His initiative must therefore be regarded with some suspicion - perhaps even with a great deal of it.

Over the last 20 years, the enlistment of yeshiva students has been Israeli politics' finest electoral horse. The Shinui party rode it in the 2003 elections on its way to 15 Knesset seats. Barak harnessed it to his own race for prime minister. In May 1998 he submitted a bill under which the number of yeshiva students granted a deferral of military service would be limited to 700 a year - one-seventh the current number.

After the elections, however, Barak sold off his promises at bargain prices to his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and considered it enough to establish a commission, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Zvi Tal, to investigate the matter. Barak's decade-old promise to draft yeshiva students occupies a top place on Israeli politics' list of campaign checks that bounced.

Since it is hard to believe that now, nine years later, the defense minister has suddenly recalled his deep commitment to drafting yeshiva students, there is no avoiding one or both of two conclusions. One is grounded in the issue itself: Barak, as defense minister, is more attuned than the rest of the public to the fact that the rate of Haredi men evading army service has become unbearable. The second conclusion involves ulterior motives: Barak's political intuition, or that of his advisers or their focus groups, says that this horse may be old, but it can still gallop like hell in the next elections.

One of the main reasons for the loss of faith in Israel's political system is the candidates' habit of making promises they have no chance of keeping. Barak is now reawakening the secular Israeli's deepest feelings of disenfranchisement: the sense that he is a sucker, required to serve in the army and risk his life defending some 50,000 ultra-Orthodox men who sacrifice themselves in the tent of the Torah.

Barak must not mislead the Israeli public again. He must not lead them into another fight for enlisting yeshiva students - not if he ultimately ends up hurrying to the Shas party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to get a few affectionate slaps and sell his voters for the pottage of a coalition alliance.

In truth, it is hard to think of a more justified fight than the one Barak has declared. Some 11 percent of potential recruits now opt to serve in a yeshiva. In 2020 their rate is expected to reach around 25 percent. This has far-reaching implications not only for the size of the army, but for the willingness of non-Haredi Israelis to enlist. It is a situation that threatens Israel's security and delivers a heavy blow to the national stamina.

Barak's decision is therefore revolutionary, but it is not a big enough step. Halting the state's recognition of new yeshivas is not enough. The list of existing yeshivas must be reexamined, and yeshivas that are too small or do not meet the supervision standards of the Religious Affairs Ministry must be dropped from it.

A quota must be set, beyond which no new students will be added to the deferred service arrangement. The quota will undoubtedly be bigger than it should be - for example, 5,000 instead of several hundreds, or 10 percent rather than 2 percent of the annual draftee pool - but it must be absolute. The issue should become central in the next elections, and all candidates must be required to take a clear-cut position on it.

And finally, a bit of utopia: Imagine if the heads of all parties whose constituents and elected officials serve in the military were to approach the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties and inform them that the time had come to reach a new arrangement.

According to this vision, a commission of negotiation - or, if you will, of national reconciliation - would be established to work out an agreement on quotas and the conditions that would allow Haredi draftees to maintain their religious lifestyle while in the army.

Unfortunately, it is not only the Zionist public's leadership crisis that prevents this scenario from coming true. It is also made impossible by the leadership crisis of the Haredi public, whose religious sages - Gedolei Hatorah - are not as great as the term suggests. As a result, instead of bringing about the revolutions necessary for the existence of the ultra-Orthodox public and Jews in general in the Land of Israel, they prefer to entrench themselves in an uncompromising zealotry.