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Netanyahu Uneasily Weathers Tal Law Storm

Prime minister likely to propose compromise bill, keep coalition intact

Marc Tracy
July 05, 2012
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/GettyImages)
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/GettyImages)

Summer heat +
lack of power in much of the Washington area (my parents are still without electricity; thanks, Pepco!) +
national holiday smack in the middle of the week =
no news in America.

But in Israel, it’s always hot, they have power, and they don’t have lily-livered Jews celebrating the Fourth, so plenty has happened, particularly surrounding the struggle to draft a new law, to replace the unconstitutional Tal Law, regulating national service requirements for the Haredim (who are excepted from Israel’s universal conscription) and the coalition politics surrounding it.

When last we visited this to-do, at the beginning of the week, Prime Minister Netanyahu basically held all the cards. He had just disbanded the moderate-seeming Plesner Committee, which was headed by a Kadima Knesset member and tasked with replacing the Tal Law. Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz was threatening, without much credibility, to bolt the coalition he joined only a couple months ago.

Since then, advocates for greater Haredi (and Arab) service, military and civil, have taken their appeal to the one place it might still resonate: the public. Over Netanyahu’s objections, the Plesner Committee released its proposals. Mandating service, in either the IDF or National Service, even for yeshiva students, with financial and even criminal penalties for noncompliance, it estimated 80 percent service among Haredim by 2016. It also would have smoothed the path toward greater Arab involvement in non-military capacities. A law professor who was on the committee has already gone public blaming Netanyahu for caving to the religious parties in his coalition instead of allowing a potentially historic compromise to be crafted.

“Faced with a choice between paying lip service to the need for egalitarian conscription and maintaining the old alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu blatantly chose the latter,” military affairs correspondent Amos Harel reports.

Is this enough for Mofaz to leave the coalition? I still have my doubts. Bibi doesn’t technically need him, especially since he has again proved his fealty to the religious parties that gave him a Knesset majority in the first place. As for Mofaz, I disagree with Yossi Verter that bolting would give Kadima an agenda and renewed vigor; the main victor would be the true opposition, Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party. So I don’t see it happening. (And I think Ari Shavit exaggerates how bad this was for Bibi: Yohanan Plesner is indeed “one of the poster boys of Israeli politics,” but outside Haaretz‘ offices how many have posters of Israeli politicians on their walls?)

I’ve come to learn that Israeli politics is conducted by brinksmanship to an extent and regularity that are unusual to American eyes. (Essentially, something like last summer’s debt-ceiling showdown happens once every couple of months.) This was politics via brinksmanship. Yes, the committee was dramatically disbanded; yes, Mofaz dramatically threatened to upend the government. But really you are seeing run-of-the-mill jockeying and bargaining taking place. And, duly, here is Netanyahu acknowledging the committee’s findings and pledging “to bring forward a bill that will address both Haredim and Arabs and win a Knesset majority and be implementable.” And, lo and behold, here is someone from Mofaz’ camp disclosing that his boss believes Bibi genuinely wants to make this happen and he will therefore give him more time.

As Amir Mizroch explains, Bibi’s compromise will be designed less to best solve this problem facing Israeli society and more to keep his coalition partners Kadima (which wants more Haredi conscription), Yisrael Beiteinu (which wants more Arab service), and Shas (which wants the status quo) all in the same boat. But it might be better than nothing, and it might turn out that the past week was just standard backroom politics conducted for all to see.

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