Analysis

Netanyahu Could Lose Everything Over ultra-Orthodox Military Draft

But the Israeli prime minister seems determined to hold it together. After all, a court would never convict him while he's in power

Illustration: Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in army uniforms march toward a stern-looking commander: Supreme Court President Miriam Naor. Netanyahu hides behind a sign welcoming the new recruits.
Amos Biderman

If there’s one thing that Israeli prime ministers have always feared, and continue to fear – other than war – it’s getting entangled in the issue of drafting members of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community. This is a deep pit that’s hard to climb out of, an issue that touches the most sensitive nerves and delicate sensibilities of the people of Israel, and its values and myths. Every act of legislation that dares to play with this hot potato is destined to reach the High Court of Justice and emerge from it humiliated and crushed.

This week’s High Court ruling – which ripped to shreds the existing law pertaining to mandatory service, put through by the current Netanyahu government (which, farcically, had annulled related legislation enacted under the previous Netanyahu government) – was handed down during a politically volatile period. The right-wing coalition – excluding Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party – is about to boil over with hatred for the High Court’s judicial activism. Or maybe it has already.

In the past few weeks, that court has battered the government and the Knesset: It annulled a third-home tax proposal, threw out the state’s two-year budgets and found illegal the prolonged incarceration of asylum seekers. These decisions came on top of a series of earlier judgments, which obligated the government to evacuate settler outposts and illegally built structures in the territories.

The hard-core right, and now also the Haredi public, perceives the word that has come down from on high as constituting a putsch. The political implications of this week’s ruling are dramatic. There isn’t a party in the Knesset, in either the coalition or the opposition, that is indifferent to the issue of the draft or to the concept of performing alternative national or civilian service. The profit-and-loss possibilities are immense.

Shas leader Arye Dery, the interior minister, said Wednesday in an interview with his party’s newspaper that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised him – undoubtedly via a phone call from Latin America, where he’s now visiting – that during the Knesset’s winter session, which opens in late October, a High Court “bypass law” will be enacted that will resolve the draft debacle. It’s worth waiting to hear Netanyahu commit himself to this personally, not to mention implement it.

The premier’s regular capitulation to ultra-Orthodox politicians during his present term of office will not be welcomed by his other voters – in this case, the patsies who serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and their parents and families. On the other hand, without Haredim as an integral element of his bloc of supporters, he’s only half a person. And, what’s worse, half a prime minister. On the third hand, if he gives in to them – as he did on the issue of maintenance work for Israel Rail taking place on Shabbat – and he goes to an election – he’s liable to lose everything. It could be suicide. On the fourth hand, if he moves up the next election to summer 2018 in order to avoid the scary, bypass-law scenario, he will be doing what he declared in Argentina this week that he would not do: voluntarily forgo a year-or-more in power for the sake of an unknown future.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners are also on the horns of their own respective dilemmas. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the man who most likes to go work every morning – a feeling that was lacking for him for years – could be expected, as a longtime adversary of the Haredim, to spearhead a universal-draft bill. But with the fate of his beloved coalition at stake, Lieberman is likely to exchange the leopard’s spots for a kitten’s fur. For that he’s liable to pay an electoral price among the hard core of his Russian voters.

Religious IDF soldiers.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

In this government, Finance Minister Kahlon is functioning as the determined guardian of the gatekeepers, and especially of the Supreme Court. It’s not entirely clear whether this position is entirely to his liking, or whether he found himself in the role by chance. At the moment, his commitment to protect the independence and status of the court against an onslaught of machinations aimed at weakening it, is firm. A court “bypass law” would be just such a machination.

Some in the coalition claim that during the negotiations to form the government over two years ago, Kahlon made a verbal promise to Haredi MKs that if the new draft law were to be annulled (they figured even back then that the brew that was simmering would be indigestible), he would not stand in the way. However, sources close to the treasury minister said this week that no such promise had been made.

Kahlon will now have to decide between the public commitment that he constantly repeats – not to lend a hand to the trampling of the Supreme Court in its capacity as the High Court of Justice – and his desire to have the coalition remain intact. On top of all that, he’s also not looking for reasons to quarrel with the Haredim.

The opposition rubbed its hands with glee at this new entanglement of the fourth Netanyahu coalition. Yesh Atid, headed by MK Yair Lapid, which built itself up by cultivating hatred of the ultra-Orthodox, and forced the previous coalition to pass the original draft law, reacted to the ruling this week as if it had won the lottery. After a period of stagnation and a decline in the polls following Avi Gabbay’s election as head of the Labor Party, the development that placed the draft of Haredim back on the agenda put the color back in Lapid’s cheeks. It couldn’t have come at a better time for him.

Here’s Lapid, already promising to flood the streets with demonstrators if the so-called bypass law is passed. There’s Lapid, delivering theatrical speeches in that deep hoarse voice. And here he is heading south, attacking Yaakov Litzman, head of the Gur Hasidim in the Knesset, for supporting the Haredim at their demonstration against secular residents in Arad, last Saturday evening. Amid the worrying specter of a flight of votes back to Labor, he’s returning to the bedrock constituency that won him 19 seats in the 2013 election.

In the past two years, when the Haredi issue was of no interest to anyone, Lapid posed as an “alternative” foreign minister, and spent most of his time on planes and meeting public officials abroad. During his forays in Israel he devoted considerable time to kowtowing to the ultra-Orthodox, expressing contrition and begging their media for forgiveness for his behavior during the term of the previous coalition. One can expect that to end now.

Power plays

An important piece of political news emerged from South America at midweek. As mentioned, Netanyahu told reporters covering his trip that he has no intention of advancing the election or of leaving politics at the end of this term. On the contrary: He intends to lead Likud to a “resounding victory” in the 2019 vote.

He was referring to rumors sprouting in Likud WhatsApp groups with the speed of a computer virus planted by Russian intelligence. One rumor was that he would dissolve the present, 20th Knesset immediately after Sukkot; another, in contradiction, say that he would announce his retirement at the end of this term, in the fall of 2019. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you don’t easily give up two more years in power,” Netanyahu said frankly. He also hinted that ambitious senior figures in Likud were behind the speculations.

Likud ministers, some of whom are eyeing the prize, as well as members of the coalition parties, pricked up their ears. Their working assumption is that Netanyahu will not be able to allow himself to run for office again once he has an indictment on his head – that is, after the attorney general has made his final decisions in the various cases pending against him. He will seek to win the public’s confidence and use a renewed mandate as a preventive remedy against the attorney general – or, as in ancient legends, will wave a cross in the face of the vampire to deter it from sinking its teeth into his neck.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks a meeting with businessmen in Buenos Aires, on September 12, 2017.
EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP

To say that the political arena, where nerves are frayed and tensions high, treated these remarks as an all-clear signal would be a wild exaggeration. So what if the prime minister said all that, was the prevailing response. None of the political players has the least doubt that, when the time comes, the senior suspect will behave according to what he thinks will serve him best in the judicial realm.

What Netanyahu did not share with the reporters – and perhaps this reticence, too, is something he “learned” in recent years – was betrayed by his close aides in private conversations. According to them, the prime minister believes that as long as he holds office, the attorney general’s hand will tremble and hesitate before signing an indictment against him. The implications of such an indicment, they are saying, would be devastating and would subvert the true course of democracy. In particular, if there is an indictment. Judges will not easily convict a serving prime minister. And for the same reasons.

Accordingly, Netanyahu has no intention of resigning if charges are brought, but rather will wage his court battle from the Prime Minister’s Office (when he’s not otherwise occupied managing the affairs of state or away on globe-trotting visits). He has Ehud Olmert as a test case: Netanyahu believes that if Olmert had still been in power while he was on trial, the outcome would have been different. An incumbent prime minister would not have been sent to jail, even if he’d been convicted.

It’s possible that behind Netanyahu’s remarks in Argentina is a half-baked suggestion raised by opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor-Zionist Union). Herzog says that, even before an indictment is filed, Netanyahu should be offered a plea bargain that would let him off with a light punishment, or even a pardon – a la Richard Nixon – in return for his immediate resignation from politics.

Herzog says that his rationale is the desire to avert a possible fraternal war, a total conflagration, that Netanyahu might instigate through his supporters. “I would offer him an honorable exit,” he told this correspondent. “Instead of the country being dragged through three-four years of chaos, in which different publics will confront one another and give Israel a bad name in the world, let’s finish the story now, quietly.”

To understand Herzog’s motives, you have to go back 31 years, when his father, President Chaim Herzog, “pre-pardoned” the ranking Shin Bet security service officials who were involved in the murder of the terrorists who hijacked a bus. The elder Herzog was severely criticized, but he did not back off. The son believes to this day that his dad saved the Shin Bet from damage that would have seriously compromised the country’s security. The son (who is surely pondering the presidency as the final stage in his own political career) is acting out of the same noble, far-sighted motives. There’s nothing populist or popular about it, only concern for the wellbeing of the nation. Or so, at least, he wants us to think.

And yes, Herzog would also like to return to center stage and to the public fray, after losing the Labor leadership to Avi Gabbay. For now, Herzog retains an honorable but empty job title that accords him Shin Bet protection, participation in state ceremonies and meetings with a dour prime minister who gets angry at him time and again for the criticism the opposition leader has dared to level at him in some interview or other.

Rise and fall

With or without MK Yigal Guetta, Shas is a party in decline. A pale shadow of its former self, it’s looking anxiously at the future. It had two decades of a double-digit number of Knesset seats, but those days won’t return. Not only have its voters evaporated, but the party itself has lost its way since the death of its spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Polls predict Shas will get only five or six seats in the next election, just like three decades ago, when it was taking its first steps in national politics. Its chairman, Arye Dery, is spending long days in police interrogation rooms. His predecessor, Eli Yishai, threatens to eat into Shas’ fragile electoral support. Moshe Kahlon, who himself is a Mizrahi, is gnawing away at the party’s base, and Avi Gabbay could also grab half a Knesset seat at Shas’ expense.

Shas leader Arye Dery at an emergency meeting of the ultra-Orthodox factions, convened to discuss the High Court ruling on Haredi army service.
Emil Salman

Guetta’s unforgivable sin was saying publicly, in a recent radio interview, that love for his sister and her son led him to attend the wedding of his nephew, who was marrying another man.

The Haredi shaming of Guetta has been so intense that he had to resign as the party’s secretary general, though not yet from the Knesset, which is in recess. Incidentally, the wedding in question took place two years ago, before he was an MK. In Shas, some crimes are not only unforgivable but also have no statute of limitations.

It’s not clear whether what happened to Guetta will help or hurt Shas, but it highlights the weakness of the party’s leader. No MK is closer to or more loyal to Dery than Guetta; Dery brought him into politics. Privately, Dery says, “I trust Yigal more than all of them.”

But Dery is now being forced to part with this ally under pressure from the Haredi public and several benighted, extremist rabbis. Had this incident occurred in Yosef’s day, Dery would almost certainly have managed to wangle a different decision.

Recently, someone suggested to Guetta that he apologize for attending his nephew’s wedding. He refused. “I will never apologize,” he said. “If these rabbis can get along with five Knesset seats, there’s nothing for me to do there. I am what I am.”

Guetta himself is no great liberal or reincarnation of Shulamit Aloni. In the past, he termed homosexuality a sickness. But in this case, he evinced a tolerance and inclusivity that’s virtually nonexistent among his colleagues in Shas and United Torah Judaism, or among hybrid ultra-Orthodox/national-religious figures like MKs Moti Yogev and Bezalel Smotrich from Habayit Hayehudi. Yet even this tiny candle had to be snuffed out.

At a crossroads

Apropos Guetta: The only left-wing party that remains here – and is proud of it – is on the brink of a serious crisis. On Sunday, the Meretz convention will meet to vote on the proposed ouster of the current party leader, MK Zehava Galon – “abridgment of term,” in newspeak – and on holding a snap election for her replacement within weeks. The proposed date is October 26, which is when a new 1,000-member convention is due to be elected.

The idea is to remove Galon well before the official end of her term, in January 2019, and to have the new leader elected by the small, functionary-ridden forum. This group objects to Galon’s courageous proposal to open the ranks and introduce an open, free primary for party leader, to be held early next year.

Galon’s initiative reflects openness, self-confidence, renewal and change that a petrified Meretz desperately needs. The contrary proposal comes from the same familiar, closed, conceptually moldy place that brought the party to the edge of the abyss in the last election.

It’s also a deceitful proposal, because the thousands of new people who joined Meretz in the past year did so in the belief that they would take part in electing the new leader. Now there are some who would spit in their face. What’s the difference between this and preventing new members from joining Likud via its web site? If there is a difference, it’s in Likud’s favor.

Galon’s chief rival, MK Ilan Gilon, explains his opposition to her proposal by claiming that only the affluent can afford to run in open primaries. That used to be the case, but things have changed, as much political activity now takes place via the social networks.

According to Galon, without the dramatic change she’s proposing, Meretz will again find itself on the brink of being excluded from the Knesset, where four seats are the minimum for entering. She doesn’t want to be the official who signs off on the party’s death certificate, she says. I asked her what she will do if the convention decides against her. “There’s no doubt that I will have to draw conclusions,” she replied, without elaborating.