Dodging the Draft Issue in Israel

The prime minister felt the pull of history when he sided with ultra-Orthodox parties in the recent battle over equalizing military service. Now he has less than two months to win the war.

If it had ever been within the purview of the Israel Defense Forces, even for a second, the question of how to draft the ultra-Orthodox was taken out of the its hands this week.

The unilateral dissolution of the Plesner Committee by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by the one-man show by its forsaken chairman, MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), to present what remained of his report, moved the issue from the arena of the practical and the pragmatic to the arena of political wrangling.

From now on, it will primarily be a subject for head butting between the Likud and Kadima, with the Haredi parties and opposition Labor Party adding their input to the melee. No significant change in army service is likely to be fomented in this round.

Plesner gained impressive amounts of media coverage, but little will remain of his good intentions to bring about an equal sharing of the national-service burden. Even though Plesner deliberately made the tone of the final report more extreme after the wholesale departure of committee members from both political poles (Yisrael Beiteinu and the Haredim) his proposal is actually the only one that could yet garner a majority in the Knesset. However, Netanyahu certainly has no intention of putting the proposal to a vote in its present format.

That is the background to Plesner's fierce attack on the prime minister (he called Netanyahu "dangerous," according to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper). In the shadow of the resignation threats voiced by Kadima leader (and Vice Prime Minister) Shaul Mofaz, Netanyahu will try to square the circle by August 1.

This is the deadline set by the High Court of Justice to replace the invalidated Tal Law (which allowed yeshiva students to defer the draft). At the moment, his chances for success appear very slim.

Historic alliance

For some weeks, Netanyahu has been signaling that, in a choice between the Haredim and Kadima, he will opt for what's known as the "historic alliance." This week he decided in favor of the Haredim and the alliance, definitively and publicly. It remains to be seen what effect this episode will have on the social-justice protest movement.

On the face of it, Netanyahu's maneuver, which comes at the expense of those who bear the burden - to whom he pledged loyalty just two months ago - will add fuel to the fire of the protest movement. However, the fact that some of the leading figures in that movement do not exactly identify with the need to undergo meaningful service in the army might be a stumbling block.

According to Netanyahu's statement on Monday, when the Tal Law expires it will be succeeded by the old Defense Service Law - in other words, a universal draft. But there will be no such situation. Netanyahu, in a slightly peculiar move, placed the responsibility on the army. He called on it to draft Haredim "according to its needs - and I believe it will do so taking into consideration the different publics, in order to prevent a rift in the nation."

The General Staff was a bit nonplussed by the crass way in which it was being called upon this time to clean up after the politicians. What exactly did the prime minister mean? After all, it's clear that no one is about to send units to round up shirkers into Mea She'arim, Bnei Brak and other Haredi areas. Was the vague guideline intended to leave the status quo intact until the High Court of Justice compels the government and the Knesset to come up with a different solution?

Netanyahu's principal aim was apparently to reduce the public pressure on him. On Wednesday, in another statement - this one in response to Plesner's publication of the report - the prime minister again dredged up the issue of service by Israel's Arabs and emphasized the need to oblige them to do civilian service. His stance on the Haredim remained vague, and not by chance. The Haredim look like the most determined player in the arena, which is why they won the current round.

Yeshiva students interviewed on television this week were smiling, and with good reason. Furthermore, with nothing being done about drafting Haredim, the Arabs are also enjoying temporary immunity.

The line followed by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and by Personnel Directorate head Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai in the past few months was: "We will do and we will obey." The political decision makers, the two were effectively saying, will dictate the framework of the solution and the army will fill it with content.

The Personnel Directorate officers who appeared before the Plesner Committee even went a step further. They explained the army's true needs and the possibility of augmenting the draft of Haredi men to meet those needs. The fall in the number of draftees in recent years (a trend which is expected to be reversed within the next few years) - along with the need for new units owing to changes in the security situation (such as the deployment of more Iron Dome antimissile defense batteries or the creation of an additional battalion to collect combat intelligence) - have increased the demand for combat soldiers. In addition, the army can make use of the Haredim to man posts in the technological and logistical units within the framework of the project to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army.

As part of the change, the IDF agreed to depart from a long-standing policy and allow the formation of another two or three Haredi units in the Nahal Brigade, beyond the one battalion that currently exists.

However, some generals have objected to the Personnel Directorate plans. These officers are concerned that the army is being dragged in the wake of politicians' hallucinations. Similar opposition came from the air force. In addition, the creation of more Haredi combat battalions means more units will become totally closed to women. And, as for recruiting Haredim to the rear-guard units, that entails not only the payment of high salaries in IDF terms - because most of these ultra-Orthodox men are older and have families - but also adjusting the nature of the service significantly to make it acceptable to them. This, again, deals a serious blow to female officers and soldiers.

Senior officers noted that the IDF has already made substantial concessions to adjust certain IDF procedures to stringent standards demanded by national-religious soldiers. Now, the top brass has warned, the army will have to go a step too far for the Haredim.

In recent years, as it tried to maneuver amid the conflicting streams in Israeli society, the IDF has shunted aside the nonpartisan ethos which guided it for decades. Equal sharing of the burden is also part of that ethos, but one must ask just how many concessions its implementation requires in practice.

Plesner's opponents maintained that his suggested solution would unnecessarily accelerate existing positive processes in a way that could lead to their collapse. They cited the half-full (well, actually one-tenth full) cup when they mentioned the hundreds-of-percent leap in the rate of Haredim being drafted - in both the Nahal and other IDF brigades - in the past few years.

However, the sustainability of such an achievement is by no means guaranteed. It is not yet clear how Haredi rabbis, who exercise the sole right in regard to the fate of their flock, will react to the crisis fomented by the Plesner report. Against the backdrop of problems in communication between the rabbis and the army, and allegations that the army has become lax vis-a-vis the conditions it offers Haredi soldiers - the possibility already exists of a decline in the number of Haredim who will enter the army, beginning with this year's August call-up.