Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose not to respond immediately Wednesday to a plea from Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, the vice prime minister, to accept the recommendations of a Knesset panel for boosting the participation of ultra-Orthodox Israelis in military service.
Mofaz earlier Wednesday declared that the future of the Kadima-Likud coalition partnership was at stake.
“The ball is in the prime minister’s court,” said Mofaz, adding that Netanyahu would have to make up his mind in “a matter of days.”
Netanyahu is thought unlikely to accept the recommendations in full — which would leave Mofaz the choice of compromising or bolting the government two months after Kadima joined it.
Meanwhile President Shimon Peres, who has met in recent days with Mofaz and with ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) offered to try to mediate in the crisis. Peres is a firm advocate of increased ultra-Orthodox participation in military service, but also maintains good relations with several key ultra-Orthodox leaders.
The recommendations of the panel, which was headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, offer the possibility of “an unprecedented historic change if implemented,” Mofaz told reporters, adding that they would foster a “new social pact” between the ultra-Orthodox community and the rest of Israeli society, and would also ensure a fairer “sharing of the burden” of serving Israel among Israeli Arabs.
“If we don’t pass the recommendations, we won’t be able to look our kids in the eyes,” he said. “This is a test of leadership.”
On Monday, Netanyahu dissolved the committee, after representatives from Yisrael Beytenu and the National Union parties, and the ultra-Orthodox parties’ representative, quit the panel in protest at its proposals. The prime minister’s move infuriated Kadima. On Wednesday, Mofaz once again lashed out at Netanyahu for taking apart the panel.
“The announcement to dissolve the panel was made unilaterally and was a harsh violation of the terms of the agreement,” Mofaz said, referring to the deal he signed bringing Kadima into the coalition in May.
The decision facing the prime minister — who risks alienating his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners if he accepts the panel’s recommendations — “is no less fateful” than some of those Mofaz, a former chief of the General Staff, had faced on the battlefield, he said, calling the panel’s draft bill “a historic opportunity.”
Mofaz spoke two hours after Plesner had presented the recommendations of his panel, insistently convening a press conference to do so even though the committee formally no longer existed.
Plesner told reporters, curiously, that he had received “full backing” from Netanyahu, and stressed that “I trust his judgment” to implement the proposals.
The key recommendations include exemptions from service for 1,500 exceptional Torah scholars per year; military service of 24 months or national service of 18 months for ultra-Orthodox conscripts; and personal sanctions for those who avoid service. Plesner said a plan for national service for Israeli Arabs should be drafted and finalized by next March.
The creation of the Plesner panel, tasked with drafting universal enlistment legislation, was one of the main tenets of Kadima’s agreement to join the coalition.
Netanyahu is reportedly willing to accept many of the committee’s recommendations, but had wanted to keep the panel’s findings under wraps.
On Tuesday the prime minister sent a message to Mofaz saying that “our viewpoints are not so different — with a meeting we can reach a conclusion,” according to the Israel Hayom daily.
Netanyahu reportedly scrapped the panel after ultra-Orthodox parties objected to the sanctions on those who don’t serve. Several members of the panel defected over the issues of sanctions and service for Arabs in the days before the committee was disbanded.
While the government has said it wants to draft the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs into some sort of national service, Haredi groups have threatened mass protest if forced to serve. Shas party spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef said Tuesday that his party would bolt the coalition if sanctions go through.