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Conscription Law Upended by Politics

With squabbling of Kadima and religious parties, Bibi holds all the cards

Marc Tracy
July 02, 2012
A protest against heightened conscription last month in Jerusalem.(Menahem KahanaAFP/GettyImages)
A protest against heightened conscription last month in Jerusalem.(Menahem KahanaAFP/GettyImages)

Crafting a new law governing military service for the ultra-Orthodox—the current law, the Tal Law, having been deemed unconstitutional—was the very thing that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s enlarged coalition was ostensibly designed to do. And it’s the very thing that now threatens to rip it apart. The seams started coming undone last week, with Kadima legislators insisting on tougher conscription guidelines for the Haredim and, for good measure, Yisrael Beiteinu going for mandatory national service for Arab Israelis, who do not serve in the Israel Defense Force. The demands put Netanyahu in an awkward position because of the religious parties in his coalition.

Yesterday, the cracks enlarged when a member of one religious party departed the Plesner Committee, the Knesset group charged with writing the new law, in a huff.

And then today, it all came tumbling down. Netanyahu disbanded the committee, whose namesake and chair is a Kadima member (he did pay lip service to more service for Haredim and Arabs). Activists accused Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz of selling out. And now Mofaz has threatened to break up the coalition. “If the prime minister wishes not to turn toward the required direction, the unity government will reach its end,” he said.

The threat is a little ridiculous. Netanyahu had a government—and approval ratings so high he was on the verge of calling snap elections—before Mofaz joined him, and therefore would presumably have one if Mofaz left him. Mofaz’ party is extremely unpopular; this is the closest it will get to power in the forseeable future. And even if Mofaz’ threat were credible, its main result would be to push Bibi closer to the religious parties, whose support would theoretically once again become necessary.

It seems as though Israeli politics, structurally, are not going to lead to a revised Tal Law that increases the service requirements of the Haredi and Arab communities. If that’s going to happen, in other words, it’s going to happen behind the scenes and as a result of Netanyahu staking his own power and prestige on the project for the sake of the general good. Will anyone take that bet?

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.