Something big is happening in Israel, but it’s hard to make out whether it’s a breakthrough in religious-secular relations, or the cooking up of a political crisis.
A new bill dealing with the thorny issue of charedim and army service is on the table, and for once, ultra-Orthodox politicians seem open to the legislation.
The measure would draft charedim into the army in increasingly larger numbers over the next few years, while leaving room for some to get to stay out of uniform, as most do today.
The charedi parties, which have fought tooth-and-nail against previous enlistment proposals, say that the bill is now under review by their rabbis “who alone will decide on the matter and rule the way we will go about the new law,” according to a joint statement by the Sephardic Shas party and United Torah Judaism.
But there are indications that the bill could very well get the green light from the rabbis. Shas looks likely to endorse it, as does half of the UTJ party. The other half of UTJ, comprised of chasidim, is currently opposed but may come around to the legislation, according to reports.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman claims that this is the bill that Israel has been waiting for. “This is the most balanced and stately law,” he said. “There’s consensus about the bill in both the coalition and opposition.”
The bill would allow many yeshiva students to defer enlistment as long as they are studying full-time, therefore avoiding the scenario that charedi leaders dread, namely that the men of their community would be expected to start army service at age 18 or 19 like the rest of the population.
However, this compromise will only stand as long as some students are finishing up studies and then going into uniform. The state will expect to see graduates of each yeshiva going to the army — a certain percentage of the student body, which will increase over the coming years.
If these quotas aren’t met at a specific yeshiva, that institution will have state funding cut. Three years later, if it still isn’t meeting quotas it can lose status as a yeshiva. And subsequently, if yeshivas nationally are failing to meet quotas, the whole compromise could be cancelled and charedim ordered to report to enlistment offices just like other Israeli Jews.
Despite Lieberman’s enthusiasm, not everyone on the opposition benches is impressed by the bill. In fact, the largest opposition party, Zionist Union, rejects the legislation, because while it drafts charedim, it gives them special allowances that the rest of the population doesn’t receive. “We want every young man and woman to either do military service or national service,” said Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay.
Nevertheless, the bill being discussed now is the most widely supported proposal so far, which begs the question: Why? How come large parts of the charedi establishment — including the prominent Ashkenazi Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky — have indicated they are open to this bill while they have rejected others?
Elazar Stern, lawmaker with the opposition Yesh Atid party, told me that he believes the current bill is actually very similar to the legislation that his party promoted after the 2013 election — only to be met by fury from the charedi parties. What has changed, Stern suggested, is the rest of the government-charedi relationship.
After the 2013 election, the charedi parties were left out in the cold, excluded from the government and stuck on the opposition benches, with budgets to charedi institutions suffering. Today, they are in the government and Stern believes that “they have never had such a time as now with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
He added that passing a draft bill according to Netanyahu’s wishes may be a price they are prepared to pay for their current prestige. “Now it’s a different time for them and they have much more to lose,” said Stern.
Netanyahu seems to be in a genuine rush to get the bill passed before the end of the Knesset’s summer session, to meet a fall deadline set by the Supreme Court to clarify the situation on the draft.
But the other possibility is that he is brewing a crisis.
Some charedim agree to the general concept of the current bill while others don’t. The leaders who broadly accept it will want tweaks and concessions; those who don’t may condition support on other changes. Is Netanyahu, instead of paving a path to consensus, setting up a coalition clash that could lead to a major debate and the collapse of the government, forcing new elections?
There’s a logic to this. Despite corruption allegations and investigations, Netanyahu is flying high in opinion polls, and it could make sense for him to go to elections while things are in his favor. The tricky thing is justifying an election to the public. If he is seen as having put a fair offer to the charedim on the table and refused to budge when they wanted more, many Israelis would admire him for standing firm, and say that the election was forced on him.
This would be a masterstroke in terms of starting an election campaign, and if there is one thing we know about Netanyahu, it’s that he is a master strategist.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.