Tal Law 2.0, Like the First One but Newer

Netanyahu may not need the Haredi parties for his coalition, but he is unlikely to propose mandatory conscription for yeshiva students.

Certain walls in Jerusalem's Mea Sha'arim neighborhood still bear the faint graffiti scrawl, "Shteinman = Kook." It targets Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, one of the leading lights of the "Lithuanian" wing of the non-Hasidic Haredim. Extremists accused Shteinman of being a Zionist and a reformer, a secret proxy for Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, because a decade ago it came to light that Shteinman supported initiatives to reframe the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and the state. The main initiative involved the committee, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal. This committee drew up the terms of military exemption for Haredi men who were full-time religious scholars, which became the basis for the 2002 Tal Law. It was Shteinman who authorized former Bnei Brak mayor Mordechai Karelitz to represent the rabbis in the Tal committee.

The Tal Law was passed, but both Shteinman and Karelitz were targeted by a vitriolic public relations campaign that included broadsides in the name of rabbis from the extreme Eda Haredit, denouncing them as Zionists.

An IDF soldier guarding Haredi men near the grave of Eliezer Ben Aharon, in the northern West Bank.

Haredi circles last week took up the question of who might dare to be this decade's Karelitz, and, more important, what order might be issued by Shteinman, who at 98 is in effect the leader of the "Lithuanian" community and by extension of the entire Haredi public. Would anyone today be willing to collaborate with secular politicians in reordering the terms of national service for adult yeshiva students?

If no such collaborator is found, the two Haredi parties could be headed for the opposition. There is, of course, another possibility: that all the talk last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz about "universal service" was mere lip service ahead of Tal Law 2.0.

As soon as the Netanyahu-Mofaz deal was done, senior coalition partners Shas and United Torah Judaism were downgraded. Netanyahu briefed Shas chairman Eli Yishai, UTJ chairman Yaakov Litzman and party colleague Moshe Gafni after the face about the developments they did not bring about. Everyone knows the prime minister can get along fine without them; even without the two Haredi parties his coalition would encompass 78 of the Knesset's 120 members. But Netanyahu told the party leaders he insisted on continuing their partnership precisely because of the sensitive discussions over replacing the Tal Law.

The government has two and a half months to comply with the Supreme Court's directive and pass a replacement for the Tal Law, which was ruled unconstitutional. The same deadline applies to the Haredim, who fear a mortal blow to the yeshiva world but have not proposed a single meaningful alternative to the Tal Law.

One Haredi politician suggested last week that the issue of drafting yeshiva students had become a zero-sum game. As he sees it, were the Haredim to get what they want then Netanyahu would be attacked for giving in to extortion and would pay a political price. On the other hand, any political dividends he might reap from the agreement with Kadima and the forging of a replacement for the Tal Law could be eradicated should the country's Orthodox population rise up in fury against him. Another Haredi politician speculated that Haredi interests would be better protected were the Haredi parties to quit the coalition. In that case, he said, the Haredi parties would be wooed ceaselessly and no one would dare recommend the compulsory conscription of a predetermined number of Haredi men.

Despite these assessments Netanyahu and the Haredi parties will try to cooperate on a new draft law. The prime minister wants to appoint a professional team modeled on the Trajtenberg Committee, formed after last summer's social protests.

Both Netanyahu and Mofaz have high hopes. Netanyahu referred last week to the "historic opportunity" to fix the Tal Law, while Mofaz said he and his partners are "going to make a major change on this issue, and remove the moral stain inherent in drawing a distinction between one group of people and another." Such pronouncements, buoyed by the fleeting excitement earlier last week over the prospect of early elections, ostensibly conform to the High Court's wishes. Any proposal, wrote Justice Elyakim Rubinstein in his majority opinion, "must be much more radical this time."


Even though Karelitz was a Haredi envoy to the Tal committee, the community did not officially support the law and some rabbis waged a holy war against it. They saw any formalization of the exemption arrangement as interference in their autonomy. They were also wary of the Tal Law's main innovation, the establishment and expansion of separate civil and military service tracks designed to attract yeshiva students. For the past decade the Haredi parties have viewed the Tal Law as a necessary evil; they have not been required to compromise any of their core values, and Haredi men have continued to devote themselves to Torah study.

Perhaps in the past there were windows of opportunity in which rabbis might have been relatively amenable to forging formal agreements about Torah study and military service, but now is no such time. This is a moment of special sensitivity for the Haredi population. The leader of the Lithuanian wing, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, has been moribund for the past three months, and a succession struggle is being quietly fought. One camp, based in Bnei Brak, favors Shteinman. A second, based in Jerusalem, supports to Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who is considered much more extreme.

Meanwhile, a kind of civil war has erupted in the Lithuanian wing between conservatives, for whom only full-time religious study is legitimate, and yeshiva graduates, who have gone out into the world - to the army, to work, to higher education - whether out of economic necessity or a change in their world view. They are called "the new Haredim."

Members of the first camp are sharpening their knives, waiting to pounce upon any Haredi delegate, rabbi or politician, who might dare to collaborate with a new committee formed to draft a replacement for the Tal Law. Their attack would lead United Torah Judaism to quit the coalition first. Shas, which has long been ambivalent about its reputation for being subordinate to the Ashkenazi Orthodox world, would have trouble remaining alone in the coalition and enduring accusations about its betrayal of Torah study.

Up to now Haredim have dragged their feet regarding the Tal Law. In recent days, after they got a taste of an election season based largely on anti-Haredi agitation, the ultra-Orthodox parties are noticeably stirring. Alone or in small groups MKs Litzman, Gafni and Ariel Atias (Shas ) are working to draft a replacement for the Tal Law that would "save the Torah world" while also placating Netanyahu and others who speak of a new, historic law. Common to all these Haredi initiatives is the cloak of secrecy that envelops them.

We should listen when Haredi politicians discuss their "red lines" on the issue, about which they are candid. They oppose compulsory conscription and draft quotas for yeshiva students, and insist that any who request a deferral or exemption receive it, as has been the case since David Ben-Gurion and, presumably, until the Messiah comes. There are no signs of a retreat from these demands; Israeli voters would be wise to jettison fantasies about legions of Haredi men abandoning their yeshivas and enlisting.

What might the Haredim accept? A multi-year plan with targets for voluntary enlistment, that can be submitted annually to the High Court, as far as the Haredi leaders are concerned. The Haredi leadership wants to shift the burden to the army, to make the Israel Defense Forces responsible for persuading Haredim to volunteer for service. This would be no different from the Tal Law, supporting existing programs to encourage Haredim males who are not in yeshivas to enlist in exchange for financial and other incentives. in return.

Such a plan would entail budget allocations for programs such as the Haredi Nahal or a technical study program for yeshiva dropouts. Although these programs do not constitute compulsory conscription, their potential to transform, or upset, the Haredi community should not be underestimated. The Lithuanian leadership fears these programs could cause large numbers of yeshiva students to abandon their studies.

Everyone keeping abreast of the latest developments regarding Haredi conscription is sure that the new Tal Law will be much closer to the old Tal Law than to the vision of "universal service" endorsed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others. In his speech on Tuesday, in between grandiose statements about equal sharing of the burden and historic changes, Netanyahu said that to replace the Tal Law he would submit to the Knesset a bill that would "gradually increase equality in sharing the burden ... without setting public against public."