Political hurdles expected to torpedo ultra-Orthodox draft reform

Political hurdles expected to torpedo ultra-Orthodox draft reform

Analysts believe Netanyahu will have hard time pushing through replacement for Tal Law that effects significant change

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Orthodox soldier and an ultra-Orthodox Israeli. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
An Orthodox soldier and an ultra-Orthodox Israeli. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

A ruling Tuesday overturning a law giving ultra-Orthodox men draft deferments is expected to have little effect on the ground, analysts say, as the government will face major hurdles in implementing any measure that changes the status quo.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement Tuesday pledging that the government would formulate a new law “that will lead to a more just change in the burden of all sectors of Israeli society.” Yet the current political reality makes it seem unlikely that such a bill will find a majority in the Knesset.

There are currently two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition — Shas, which holds 11 Knesset seats, and United Torah Judaism, with five seats. Shas has already indicated it won’t cause a coalition crisis in response to the High Court’s decision, but many still do not believe the Knesset can ratify a law that will significantly change the situation. Under the law, thousands of yeshiva students currently defer enlistment to the army every year.

Shas spokesman Yakov Betzalel said he expected any new law to resemble the Tal Law, which expires on August 1, with only “minor changes.” “From my experience, the ultra-Orthodox community will not accept even short-term enlistment,” he told The Associated Press.

Lawmakers from United Torah Judaism declined to be interviewed Wednesday but faction chairman Yisrael Eichler released a statement in which he promised to study the Supreme Court decision and figure out how to deal with it. “In any event,” the statement said, “Torah students, whose Torah is their craft, will continue the study of Torah, because due to their merit the world exists.”

His message seems clear: We’ll make sure no law will be passed that will force our flock to switch from black and white to khaki green.

Likud officials said that Netanyahu will “face opposition from the representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties” as soon as he proposes a serious law to replace the current one, which is set to expire in August and will not be renewed. “A confrontation like that in the middle of the summer could move up elections,” senior Likud officials told Yedioth Ahronoth.

“It is highly unlikely that a law will pass that will change the current situation in any significant way,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “The most likely outcome of this is a new law that is a complete fudge.”

Ultra-Orthodox spokesmen who argue against the draft often say that serving in the army would hurt their spirituality. Cognizant of religious sensitivities, critics then suggest some sort of national service, which young ultra-Orthodox men and women could perform in an environment of their choosing, such as Haredi-run hospitals or community centers.

Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, who called the Tal Law “a danger for Israel’s security,” said that once young yeshiva students realized that there was no way to get out of some sort of public service, a part of them will actually consider enlisting.

“Some people will realize that if they have to do something, maybe they should go to do something technological in the army; at least that’s going to give them a profession,” she recently told The Times of Israel. “Maybe they will do it from a very narrow interest and not out of Zionist ideology but eventually they’re going to serve and equally share state’s burden.”

The entire issue of taking the ultra-Orthodox community to task is one the prime minister would rather avoid, Rynhold said. If he commits to forcing the Haredim to enlist, or even to give a few years to a national service, his government is likely to collapse. If he proposes a fluff law that will effectively preserve the status quo, most voters will see him as a puppet of the ultra-Orthodox who is sending their children to war while allowing a small minority to sit and study.

Netanyahu could only get away with pushing through a law that will end exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox if he pushes off any decision until right before the next elections, Rynhold added. Since such a step would garner public broad support, he could dare to upset his ultra-Orthodox partners.

Other analysts don’t think it’s at all possible to dramatically change the status quo.

“I can’t image any prime minister, whether from the left, the center or the right, will ever be able to pass a law that will force Haredim to enlist,” said Doron Navot, a political scientist from University of Haifa. “That’s fantasy. I really do not see something like that happening any time soon.”

The idea of sharing the burden does not automatically imply that the ultra-Orthodox should have to serve for the same length of time as everyone else, he added. “It’s not necessarily fair to ask Haredim to do exactly the same that everybody else does. After all, they’re ultra-Orthodox, and perhaps it’s unfair not to take that into consideration as well.”

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