Rob Lattin is Jspace News' Foreign Affairs Correspondent. In addition to covering foreign affairs for Jspace, Rob is a blogger on Israeli and Middle Eastern foreign policy for the Foreign Policy Association, as well as a freelance writer. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Israel’s “super-coalition,” which makes up an unprecedented 94 seats in the Knesset, is not so super these days. The coalition is at risk of collapsing over attempted reforms of the Tal Law, which provides military exemptions for the Haredi community. On July 2, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unilaterally dissolved the Plesner Committee, a group tasked with making recommendations on how to reform the law. The dissolution of the committee, which was led by Yohanan Plesner of Kadima, was due to a loss of confidence by several of the coalition’s parties.
"To my regret, the Plesner Committee did not succeed in reaching agreed-upon outlines due to the withdrawal of several of its members, and it cannot formulate a recommendation that would achieve a Knesset majority," Netanyahu said in a statement. "For all intents and purposes, the committee has been disbanded. This week I will invite the heads of the coalition parties to try and formulate a proposal that would receive a Knesset majority.”
Furious about the prime minister’s decision, Kadima head and Israeli Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz supported the Plesner Committee and threatened to pull Kadima out of the coalition. “The committee was formed by Kadima and Likud together, and its unilateral dissolution by the prime minister does not obligate Kadima,” Mofaz said. “If the prime minister does not go in the right direction, the national unity government will end.”
Regardless of the committee’s dissolution, Plesner presented its recommendations. The committee determined that about 80 percent of draft-age Haredi Jews would perform either military or civilian national service by 2016. The military service track would last 24 months and the civilian national service track would last 18 months. Those who did not show up for enlistment would be subject to sanctions, including fines and possibly even criminal punishment. Haredi draft-dodgers would lose property tax and housing benefits, as well as educational scholarships. There would be no deferment of service past the age of 22, except for a group of 1,500 students annually. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the civilian service would develop and expand service tracks to meet recruitment targets and shortened army service, which is now customary, would be canceled.
Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman has demanded that all draft-age Israeli-Arabs, of which there are around 30,000, perform national service. The committee said there should be "service for all" including the Israeli-Arab sector. But it did not give directions for incorporating Israeli-Arabs into civilian service. The committee said such rules should be formulated by the end of this year and that the legislation should be completed by March 2013.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Vice Premier Mofaz have been conducting intensive talks the last couple of days to find a solution. The rime minister’s office released a statement saying that the two leaders had agreed on the establishment of a new committee tasked with increasing minority participation in the IDF. Mofaz vehemently denied that such an agreement took place. “There will be no new committees,” Mofaz said. “After days of negotiations it seems Netanyahu is unwilling to publicly adopt the [Plesner] Committee’s recommendations, and instead wants to create yet another committee.” Many believe that Netanyahu is capitulating to right-wing and Haredi pressure, much to the anger of the Israeli population who continue to protests on the streets over the issue.
Based on a Supreme Court ruling, the Tal Law is scheduled to be cancelled August 1, and the IDF will be free to begin drafting yeshiva students. Jerusalem Post Reporter Yaakov Lappin told Jspace that having something in place by the August 1 deadline is hugely important because not having a plan, “would result in chaos. The Haredi population would go into civil disobedience mode. The IDF is not ready to absorb that many new soldiers, especially from a sector of society that is set off from mainstream society. Also, the idea of drafting Israeli Arabs into military service is a non-starter.” Lappin did say, however, that it is “possible to draft Arab youths into a national service program, which would allow them to serve their own communities in the emergency services, as well as work in hospitals and other centers, and gain valuable qualifications that will help them join the work force later on.”
Whether the coalition would fall apart over this issue, Lappin said, “I don't think so, although nothing is certain at this stage. In order for Kadima to leave the coalition, it would have to make the assumption that it has leveraged the draft crisis well enough and gained enough votes over the issue to head for elections. That assumption is by no means self-evident at this stage. If Shaul Mofaz feels he can bend Netanyahu's arm and force him back to the basic parameters set by the Plesner Committee, he may decide to stay in the government.”