Besides for a successful vaccine campaign, the other element on which Netanyahu sought to anchor his election campaign is also proving to be a disappointment. Next week the prime minister was scheduled to pay a lightning visit to the Emirates and Bahrain, the two countries that signed normalization agreements with Israel last September.
But the glory of the diplomatic achievement he arrived at with the aid of the Trump administration has faded. The reasons: preoccupation with the coronavirus and the fact that the government’s persistent refusal to impose quarantine on Israelis returning from Dubai turned them into super-spreaders of the British variant in Israel.
On Thursday, against the background of a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus in the Persian Gulf and growing public criticism over the necessity for the visit, Netanyahu announced its cancellation. It’s the third time he’s postponed a planned visit to the two countries. In the meantime, in what’s already starting to look like it’s not by chance, there hasn’t been even one courtesy phone call with the new president of the United States, Joe Biden, even though it’s been more than two weeks since Biden took office.
The signs of a possible cold shoulder from the Democratic administration are heightening the paranoia in Jerusalem over a possible quick deal between the United States and Iran. The security cabinet is slated to meet for a rare political-diplomatic discussion in this period, ahead of the renewal of the negotiations on the United States’ return to the nuclear agreement with Iran. Washington has not reacted publicly to the remarks of IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi last week, in which he warned against signing a new agreement and spoke about renewing the Israeli military option.
Kochavi seems not to have foreseen the intensity of the media firestorm his speech ignited. Nevertheless, the visit to Israel by the head of the U.S. Central Command went ahead as scheduled, and the two countries this week launched a joint air-defense exercise codenamed “Juniper Falcon.”
Meanwhile, on Wednesday quotes were published from an interview that President Biden’s new envoy to Iran on the nuclear issue, Robert Malley, gave to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, before assuming his post. Malley was critical of the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last November, an operation that Iran attributes to Israel. He raised the possibility that the planners of the assassination wanted to sabotage the renewal of the talks and that it made the Iranians toughen their terms ahead of renewed compliance with the nuclear agreement.
In the northern sector it was business as usual this week. On Wednesday Hezbollah failed in an attempt to topple an Israeli drone over Lebanon by means of an antiaircraft missile. A few hours later a report came in about another Israeli aerial strike in Syria, apparently targeting an Iranian arms shipment in the Damascus airport. The front between Israel and Iran and the latter’s proxies continues to seethe, even without a direct connection to the future of the nuclear agreement.
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By comparison, it’s actually the Palestinian arena that looks a bit calmer. Qatar’s promise to transfer another $360 million to the Gaza Strip this year, in monthly installments, is stabilizing the rule of the Hamas government. This time Netanyahu also appears to need the quiet. It’s unlikely that he can afford a security crisis at this time, on top of the economic and health woes.
‘Showing them we’re serious’
After years of legal and political foot-dragging, there are initial signs that the Defense Ministry and IDF will perhaps deign to start treating more seriously the phenomenon of draft evasion by women pretending to be religiously observant. Recently, and very late in the day, a committee chaired by a retired (female) judge was appointed to discuss canceling the exemption from service for young women found to be faking.
It was the legislature that created the legal foundation for the extensive evasion, which has grown more widespread over the years. The 1986 Defense Service Law states that a woman who wishes to be exempted from military service for religious reasons must submit a declaration to a court or to a rabbinic court to the effect that religious observance precludes her from serving, she keeps kosher at home and outside, and she does not travel on Shabbat.
Over the years, even senior officers in the IDF Manpower Directorate have admitted that this clause, and the absence of its enforcement, allows the law’s exploitation by thousands of women who submit false declarations, which cannot be examined properly.
In 2012, the Knesset amended the law to stipulate that a committee would be established to cancel an exemption based on a false declaration or because a woman who declared herself to be religious was not fulfilling the precepts in the two years after making the declaration. However, the regulations needed to establish the committee were not enacted, because of political pressures exerted by the Haredi parties.
In April 2018, in the wake of a petition filed by a nonprofit, Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality, the regulations were finally enacted and the committee was due to start its work within three months. But the foot-dragging continued, requiring additional petitions to be submitted.
Netanyahu, in his capacity as defense minister at the time, appointed the committee in July 2019, but a year later it had not yet started its work. Last year, Hiddush petitioned the High Court of Justice for the third time, in an attempt to force the authorities to activate the committee. This April the temporary order enabling the committee to convene will expire, three years after it was promulgated.
Data that the nonprofit received from the IDF show that 19,462 female candidates for service asked to be exempted on religious grounds, and only 519 requests were rejected. More than a third of the Jewish women in the year’s call-up were exempted, and the number is only rising every year. According to Hiddush, an internal IDF estimate maintains that between 10 percent and 33 percent of the religion-based exemptions are granted on the basis of false information.
Moreover, 80 percent of the women who are exempted from serving in each call-up cited religious reasons, with the others divided among medical and mental-health reasons, marriage or moving abroad. This week the newspaper Israel Hayom reported that the percentage of women draftees decreased by 3 percent within four years and in 2019 stood at just 55.9 percent.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and the Defense Minister stated, in reply to a query from Haaretz: “The procedures of appointing the committee for examining exemption based for reasons of religious observance have been completed. The machinery for examining cancellation of an exemption on religious grounds is already operating and being applied on the ground.
Recently, first notifications were sent to female candidates for defense service who had received an exemption on religious grounds and regarding whom there is a concrete basis for presuming that they behaved in a manner that does not accord substantively with one or more of the conditions they declared in order to receive an exemption. Sending the notification constitutes a prior stage ahead of referring the case for the committee’s examination as far as this is required.”
In the days ahead, the defense establishment will submit for the committee’s decision first requests to cancel exemptions. A source in the Manpower Directorate added, “We will not succeed in catching every evader, but the idea is to show that we are serious and to deter women from submitting false declarations.”
In the past the IDF tasked private investigators with examining suspicions of fraudulence. Today, the procedure relies primarily on examining posts on the social services of women who make a declaration of religious belief.