According to an unofficial leak of the Committee’s conclusions last week, things looked bleak. According to its recommendations, only 1,500 “dedicated” Torah students would receive exemption every annual draft. While present Israeli law exempts all Torah students whose “Torah is their profession,” the recommendation is that that in the future only 20 percent of “dedicated” Torah students would be exempted. Out of about 7,500 yeshivaleit reaching conscription age of 18 each year, 6,000 would receive draft notices coupled with various benefits that would be reduced annually as they continued to remain in yeshiva. At the age of 22, yeshiva bochurim would have to leave their studies and choose either the army or national service. At present, only a few hundred yeshivaleit enlist each year.
For two years, the yeshivaleit would either serve in special religious units such as Shahar and Netzach Yehuda which already exist, or be forced to perform non-military national service. Another proposal the committee was working on was to establish Hesder-type yeshivos which would provide a combined learning/military program for the black-hat yeshivos. Bochurim would learn until 19-20 years old, serve in the army for 16 to 24 months, and then return to the gemorah. So far, such yeshivos only exist in the national-religious sector.
The committee was planning to financially penalize yeshivos harboring draft dodgers, and to penalize the dodgers themselves with economic sanctions that would include cancellation of housing benefits and municipal tax breaks. All these ideas were to be codified and implemented over the next four years.
Last Wednesday, Yochanan Plesner (Kadima) added at a Kadima meeting that according to his proposal, draft dodgers would also be subject to criminal sanctions. “Our basic rule is that everyone will contribute significantly to national service,” he said. “The law requires conscription; anyone contravening the law will be subject to criminal sanctions.”
UTJ and Shas vehemently opposed the leaked conclusions. Shas Chairman, Eli Yishai, considered them impractical.
“This is a deliberate move by the [Plesner] Committee and the treasury to set quotas that on the one hand, the chareidi community cannot achieve and, on the other hand, the army cannot handle and doesn’t want,” he said in an interview. “The army will continue with its old policies and the treasury will make money.”
Behind the scenes, Netanyahu was trying to soften the terms of the Plesner deal and persuade chareidi politicians not to stonewall the whole process.
“We will find an agreeable solution he,” Netanyahu said. “Nothing is unsolvable. We will find a way to equally share the burden without creating fear in Israeli society.”
Somehow, he hoped to bridge the irreproachable demands of his coalition partners. On the one hand, the chareidi sector of his coalition want to whittle down conscription to almost nothing (on Sunday last week, thousands protested in Kikar Shabbos against any form of forced enlistment at all) while Mofaz (Kadima) and Lieberman (Yisroel Beiteinu) want to see every Israeli drafted for service.
Following up the committee’s conclusions would have made the struggle even worse. Chareidi parties promised they would torpedo every attempt to try and pass it as law, while other coalition parties such as Kadima and Yisroel Beiteinu were determined it would be fully implemented. The fight over chareidi enlistment was developing into a threat to drive the chareidim out of Netanyahu’s coalition.
But last Thursday, the playing field altered dramatically after the Yisroel Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi parties, the fiercest proponents of chareidi conscription, walked out of the committee. Their motive was not dissatisfaction with the committee’s stance regarding chareidim, but stemmed from a totally different angle. In their opinion, the Arabs were getting it too easy. In face of fierce Arab opposition, the committee’s recommendations for Arab enlistment were easier than for the chareidi camp. The Arab issue was too complicated to deal with within the committee’s limited time frame, the committee claimed. The two withdrawing parties were unwilling to support favoritism.
“Yisroel Beiteinu believes that there is only one correct path to bring about the genuine equality of burden among all citizens in the country, and that is for every Israeli 18-year-old to serve in the military or civilian service, whether secular, chareidi or Arab,” the party declared to the press.
To make things worse, on Sunday night, the chareidi representative on the Plesner Committee, attorney Yaakov Weinroth, quit as well, explaining to Netanyahu that the issue of imposing personal sanctions on yeshivaleit was the last straw.
“The committee acted irresponsibly in handling this sensitive issue,” he said. “Aggressive actions, even if they carry short-term results, are disastrous in the long run.”
There were also rumors that coalition chairman, MK Ze’ev Alkin, was about to leave the committee, which would have left a committee consisting of its sole survivor, Yochanan Plesner.
NETANYAHU AXES COMMITTEE
Having had enough, on Monday morning, Netanyahu dissolved the committee, explaining that the walkouts demonstrated it could not compose legislation approvable by the Knesset.
“We appointed the committee to formulate an agreed formula for the government and coalition in accordance with the ruling of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Plesner Committee has not succeeded in reaching an agreed formula due to the leaving of its members. It cannot formulate a recommendation that will garner a majority vote in the Knesset. The committee has disbanded and I thank the five public representatives for their hard work.”
This by no means meant an end to the threat of yeshiva enlistment. Immediately afterwards, Netanyahu announced: “The disbandment of the committee does not annul our responsibility to deal with the subject of equal burden for all. Therefore, I intend to do the following: 1) This week, I will invite the head of the coalition parties to try and formulate a recommendation that can receive a majority vote in the Knesset. In continuation to the conversations I had with Shaul Mofaz, I believe that with joint effort we can reach a desired solution. 2) If by August 1st there is no majority approved solution, the Tal Law will expire and the Military Service Law that applies to the entire Israeli populace will come into effect. 3) I prefer an agreed, gradual solution. But if we do not reach this by August 1st, the IDF will recruit according to its needs. I believe it will do so with due consideration to the various sectors in order to prevent a rift of the nation. 4) Because the Military Service Law does not provide a solution to issue of Arab and chareidi participation in civil service, we will work in parallel to resolve this issue.”
The UTJ issued a formal protest against this latest stance:
“UTJ protests sharply and strongly against the Prime Minister’s statement following the dissolution of the Plesner Committee that if no agreed solution is reached, the law deferring the enlistment of bnei yeshivos will expire on 1.8.2012 and talmidei yeshivos who are not drafted will be considered AWL from the IDF.
“The party demands that the Prime Minister keeps his coalition agreement as stated and pass a law enabling the continuation of the existence of the Torah world and the preservation of the status of Torah students. The UTJ protests and expresses anger at the managing of the Plesner Committee that ignored all suggestions presented to it by professional, civil, and security bodies, among other things, to annul compulsory conscription, discuss the population sectors in their entirety, plus other solutions that were not discussed, etc.”
MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) added, “The Prime Minister abandoned the chareidi community, who was his partner for years, because of cheap populism of political parties acting for out of political motives. Netanyahu must demonstrate responsibility and leadership and not abandon the public to chaos and anarchy.
“Netanyahu made a mistake when he created the commission whose motives and conclusions were known in advance. The role of the Prime Minister is to lead and not let politicians and anarchy take over. Instead of giving the responsibility to an obscure, self-interested committee, the government is the one should have held discussions on the matter.”
Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, repeated his accusation that the Plesner Committee was but a ploy to force UTJ and Shas out the coalition.
“The dismantling of the Keshev Committee proves what was clear from the outset, that the intention of MK Plesner was from the start against the ultra-Orthodox and out of political will that Kadima would gain seats as a result of a possible resignation of UTJ and Shas,” he said. “I call on the Prime Minister to demonstrate responsibility and commitment to the coalition agreement to preserve the status of bnei yeshivos and not be swept away by impractical political initiatives.”
Shas officials also responded to the dramatic upheaval.
“We regret that instead of coming to terms, the Prime Minister chose to set up an ultimatum that could lead to a split in the people,” they said. “The total disintegration of the Plesner Committee is further proof that the establishment of the committee in its current form was a mistake. A committee whose only attempted solution was to give a political bribe, a committee that was unable to understand the significance and complexity of the issue it was created for, and reached its conclusions before deliberations began. The importance of this subject requires the establishment of a serious and dedicated committee that performs its deliberations impartially.”
MK Yisroel Eichler came up with the novel suggestion that Israel should do away with conscription altogether.
“The forced conscription of chareidi and Arab soldiers and workers will only deepen hatred against the state that antagonizes them. Compulsory military service is a throwback to the days of Russian Czars and denies human rights to liberty and equality. The Gedolei Yisroel see the induction of chareidi soldiers to camps along with girls as a gezeiras shmad for which chareidi Jews should give their lives for.”
He therefore suggests gradually transforming the armed forces into a paid volunteer army that will mobilize all who are competent and suitable for it. The army will not have to recruit people unfit for military service, which will free many billions for the purpose of providing good wages professional military men.
MOFAZ THREATENS TO LEAVE THE COALITION
Netanyahu’s annulment of whatever was left of the Committee was an embarrassment for his coalition partner, Minister Shaul Mofaz, head of Kadima, who, minutes earlier, had spoken at a Kadima meeting of the success of the committee, mentioning “the tremendous successes of the committee that is reaching concrete conclusions in recent days, and all under the leadership of Kadima.”
Hearing of Netanyahu’s decision, Mofaz threatened to leave the coalition he so recently entered.
“I reject the Prime Minister’s statement and give full support to the committee for equal burden headed by MK Plesner. The committee was established under a joint agreement of Kadima and Likud, and therefore its unilateral dissolution by the Prime Minister does not obligate Kadima, which will continue to fulfill public commitments.
“The committee’s conclusions will be made â€‹â€‹public, and will form the basis of any real, decent, moral, legal, and effective attempt to make a historical emendment regarding equal responsibility for all. If the Prime Minister chooses not to turn towards this necessary course, the national unity government will reach the end of the road.”
Heads of the “suckers” movement who call on all Israelis to share the army burden called on Mofaz to carry out his threat.
“It’s time for you to demonstrate leadership – resign from the government and lead Israel to elections where division of the burden will be the main issue,” they wrote to him.
However, it is worth noting that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, insists that the issue of chareidim going to the army is not so crucial after all.
“It is obvious that every Jew who reaches 18 must serve and protect Israel, but if you ask what is the most vital and urgent need for the country — it is first and foremost for chareidim to integrate into the workplace. If, during the next 10-20 years there is no process of increasing chareidi and Arab participation in the workforce, the economy will be damaged and the market will not grow more than 4%.”
“I think the justest solution is military service for all, but the correct solution for them and for us, is the integration of chareidim into the modern economy. Any program adopted must be reasonable and rational, and contribute to the economy of Israel. Not a program that everyone initially applauds and whose benefit later turns out not to be worth the cost.”
Despite Netanyahu’s disbandment of his committee, Plesner is adamant that he will publicize its conclusions in any case.
“I spoke with the committee’s members and we intend, as was originally planned and as we said in a letter to the prime minister today, to present the panel’s conclusions on Wednesday,” he said. “It seems that there are those who are running away from the significance of this, or are afraid of it,” he added. “But I think that the Israeli public is waiting this message, and we’re going to pass it on, and not let anyone whose afraid from publishing these recommendations from blocking their publication.”
Plesner or no Plesner, Israel’s Torah world still faces its greatest threat since the days of Ben Gurion. A great battle still lies ahead.