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Israelis March En Masse For Fairer Draft Law

Protests, Kadima Party force Bibi to promise real concessions

Marc Tracy
July 09, 2012
Military reservists and their families march Saturday in Tel Aviv.(Jack Guez/AFP/GettyImages)
Military reservists and their families march Saturday in Tel Aviv.(Jack Guez/AFP/GettyImages)

These days you don’t get tens of thousands of Israelis marching in the streets for any of the many issues that get the most attention stateside—not on the peace process or the Palestinians, not Iran, not the Arab Spring. Rather, they come to protest the high cost of living, and particularly housing, as we saw last summer; and, they come, as they did Saturday, to protest the government’s inability to institute a law that requires greater military or civil service from the Haredi (and, for some, Arab) communities. The protest drew about 20,000 to a march in downtown Tel Aviv. And it’s this issue that threatens to cause a crisis for Prime Minister Netanyahu, who now struggles to keep intact a coalition that includes one party (Kadima) that joined the coalition precisely in order to craft a fairer replacement for the unconstitutional Tal Law, which currently governs conscription; another party (Yisrael Beiteinu) clamoring for stricter requirements for Haredim and Arabs; and a smattering of religious parties that care about little except that the status quo on issues like conscription be kept as is.

Netanyahu, who only a week ago was refusing to cave in to demands for substantial changes to the way things are currently done, is now scrambling to co-opt the reformists’ demands. Last week, he disbanded the committee to replace the Tal Law when it became clear that the committee would recommend substantially increased ultra-Orthodox enrollment in the Israel Defense Force. Yesterday, he appointed the old committee’s head, Yohanan Plesner, to co-chair a new committee is supposed to finish its work within the week, and which already has secured the support of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Netanyahu himself. “Neither the army, the economy, nor society can continue on the current path,” the prime minister said. “We are citizens of one state, and we must all participate in bearing the burden of service to the state.” (There is something hopeful in Bibi’s neurotic need never to be too unpopular: in some ways it’s the essence of democratic republicanism to always do exactly what the people want at that very minute.)

The real story is how Shaul Mofaz’ Kadima has been able to exert real power from within the coalition even though, when it joined two months ago, it was merely giving a majority an even wider margin—it could leave the government tomorrow and the government would still be functional. Haaretz’ Yossi Verter articulates whence Kadima’s power derives: “Were Kadima to quit the government in response to suspension of the work of the Plesner Committee and the shelving of its plan for a new national service law,” he writes, “Netanyahu would earn the image of a politician who capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox on an issue that raises powerful feelings among the public: a fair and equitable distribution of the burden of army service. Indeed, if there is something that worries Netanyahu, it is running for reelection in the guise of the defender of Haredi draft evasion.”

Verter reports that Bibi’s last best hope lies with the Shas party, which is in his coalition, and unlike most religious parties represents Sephardim—even the most religious of whom tend already to serve in the army. Shas’ spiritual leader has called for extra prayer—no, really—to save the ultra-Orthodox from universal conscription. But the party’s political leader, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, may prove more amenable. Of course, he’ll then probably want something in return. And it may well have to do with one of the issues that get noticed all the way over here.

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