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Will Israel’s Debate Over National Service Tear the Country Apart?

JERUSALEM—The long-running Israeli debate over who should be required to perform military or civilian service is coming to a head once again, heightening just about every fault-line in the country—religious versus secular, Jews versus Arabs, left versus right. How this debate is resolved will influence not only the composition and duration of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, but also the future development of Israeli society.

The reason is this: Mandatory service is not just a policy decision; it goes to the heart of Israel’s identity. Israel is at least as much a civic republic as it is a liberal democracy. Full citizenship in Israel is a matter of reciprocity—obligations begetting entitlements (as opposed to America’s conception of citizenship as an the endowment of rights.)

Let’s begin, then, at the beginning. Arab citizens of Israel are permitted, but have never been required, to perform either military or civilian service. For very different reasons, the same is true for the most religious Israelis. When the state was founded in 1948, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to exempt students involved in full-time study of the Torah from military service. The Nazis had destroyed the great eastern European centers of Jewish learning, and only a remnant remained in Israel. The exemption covered only 400 students, and Ben-Gurion reportedly believed that Orthodox Judaism would fade away.

That’s not what happened, of course. Highly observant Jewish groups, known as haredim, became the fastest growing sector of the population, and the number of students exempted from military service multiplied many times over. By 1999, such students totaled more than thirty thousand. This made it more difficult for the Israeli Defense Forces to meet their manpower needs, and it created resentment in the non-haredim population nearly all of whose sons and daughters did two years of full-time military service followed by many years in the reserves. Rising state subsidies to support haredim educational institutions and social services further soured the public mood.

Then the Israeli Supreme Court intervened, ruling that without appropriate legislation, the minister of defense had no authority to administer this ad hoc system of exemptions. In response, the government appointed the Tal Committee (named for its chairman, former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal) to devise a solution. Its report seeming did so, offering recommendations that the Knesset ultimately enacted. Under the Tal Law, yeshiva students would have the option of deferring military service until age 22, followed by either military service or a year of unpaid civilian service.

While this arrangement seemed reasonable, it soon unraveled. By 2005, the government was forced to admit that only a few dozen haredim students had enlisted in the army—in part because the state had done little to enforce the law. The Supreme Court intervened again, giving the government a bit more time to get serious about enforcement.

In 2007, the Knesset renewed the law, which was scheduled to expire, for another five years. Once again, the results were meager. In February of this year, the Supreme Court ruled the Tal Law unconstitutional on the grounds that as applied, it had failed to achieve its goal of fair treatment for all citizens. (The number of haredim youth eligible for but not performing military service has nearly doubled since 1999 and now exceeds fifty thousand.) In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed the Keshev Committee to “formulate a new policy that would guarantee a more equal sharing of the burden among all parts of Israeli society.”

At first the prospects for this latest effort seemed dim. Netanyahu headed a narrow coalition that depended on religious parties for a majority, and these parties were dead-set against forcing yeshiva students into military or civilian service. But then, in an unexpected response to the prime minister’s threat to hold new elections, the centrist Kadima Party joined the coalition, creating one of the broadest-based governments in Israel’s history. And secular-leaning Kadima could be counted on to support the reforms.

But in Israel nothing is straightforward. Led by the fire-breathing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular parties (as distinct from the right-wing religious parties) demanded that not only haredim be made to serve in the military, but also Israeli Arabs, who have long resisted on the grounds that they could not reasonably be expected to serve a society that treated them unequally. And what about the left-wing parties, the right wing asked, some of whose young adherents resisted military service because they regarded the military occupation of the West Bank as illegal and immoral? (The left angrily rejected the purported equivalence between blanket exemptions and conscientious recusal.)

Against this backdrop, members of the reform commission began jumping ship, and much of the action shifted to behind-the-scenes efforts led by the prime minister, who reportedly demanded that the religious parties soften their position. These parties now seem disposed at least to negotiate.

But on another front, Netanyahu told the Keshev Committee that he would not bring its proposals up for a vote if they exempted Arab Israelis from national service. Although many committee members regarded such a mandate as divisive and unenforceable, it was supported by most of the government coalition, including not only the right-wing parties but also by part of Kadima, which could split over the issue. haredim religious leaders reacted bitterly to the stepped-up pressure, accusing Netanyahu of putting his new partnership with Kadima ahead of the 35-year bond between Likud and the religious parties. The heads of those parties threatened that if the coalition rammed an unacceptable law down their throats, they would not participate in any future government headed by Netanyahu.

With an August 1 deadline looming, matters have come to a head this week. On Monday, Netanyahu disbanded the committee. In response, Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz, the head of Kadima, threatened to pull his party out of the government coalition, accusing Netanyahu of squandering an historic opportunity by capitulating to his religious coalition partners. Other key players have dug in as well. Avigdor Lieberman firmly reiterated his party’s position: “Every Israeli who reaches age 18 must be drafted either to the army or the civilian service.” And he rejected compromise proposals to defer the service of young haredim until their early 20s, insisting that their entry into mandatory service should not be postponed, “not for two months and not for two days.” A leader of the largest religious party responded in kind: “Studying the Torah is a legitimate way of serving the state.” The leader of another religious party rejected all talk of compromise: “Whoever wants to study will study,” he said.

Not surprisingly, an editorial war has also broken out. Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the left-leaning Haarezt, which is sympathetic to both secular and Arab demands, is proposing a radical shift of policy. Coercing Arab and haredim youth to serve, he argues, is doomed to fail. It’s time to abandon what he regards as the outdated fiction that military service is the vehicle of civic integration. This doesn’t mean that current inequalities—obligations for some, exemptions for others—must continue: “There is another way of achieving a shared burden—removing it, striking down mandatory military service, and turning the IDF into a professional army that will enlist only those who desire to do so.”

The lead editorial in the Jerusalem Post, which leans right and is more sympathetic to haredim claims, takes an altogether different tack. It argues that a gradual sea-change has been taking place in haredim society over the past decade: not only are more of them in the paid workforce, but also the number performing military service has risen from a handful to about 2,700—just a fraction of those eligible to serve, but tangible progress nonetheless. Because the Keshev Committee seemed bent on a direct confrontation with the haredim that could have destroyed the chances for continuing progress, Prime Minister Netanyahu “wisely decided to disband it before irreparable damage was done.” His challenge now is to propose new policies that will accelerate the progress of the past decade without forcing the haredim community into all-out resistance.  

The stakes are very high, not only for the government, but also for Israeli society. Secular Israelis, along with religious moderates, are fed up with what they regard as special privileges the haredim have exploited their political clout to extort. But both young haredim and young Arabs may well respond to service mandates with civil disobedience. Efforts to promote civic integration could end up backfiring. Moderate, enforceable steps to expand the percentage of young Israelis performing some form of service might set in motion a virtuous circle that could lay the foundation for further advances. But it is an open question whether enough parties to the controversy would be willing to compromise. Meanwhile, the social divisions that have dogged Israel since its founding continue to fester.

To maximize his room for maneuver, Netanyahu wants to maintain the widest possible coalition. But he may no longer have that luxury. The Supreme Court could end up forcing him to choose between the center and the religious right. And the clock is ticking.