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Debate over ultra-Orthodox in Israeli Army threatens Netanyahu power

Baz Ratner / Reuters

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks behind Israeli soldiers at the entrance to a recruiting office in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

TEL AVIV – The Israeli Army is at the center of the latest debate between left and right-wing politicians that threatens to tear apart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. 

Service in the Israel Defense Forces is mandatory for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18, including women. There are two groups that have traditionally been exempted: ultra-Orthodox religious Jews and Arab-Israelis.

But after years of debate, those exemptions from service are now being questioned, leading to a political minefield for Netanyahu and his government.

Historic opportunity?  
When Israel established itself as a religious state, the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion made a deal with country’s ultra-religious Jews. Upon reaching the age of 18, religious Jews could declare they wanted to study the Bible at Yeshiva schools, and in return Israel would not draft them into the army. When Ben Gurion agreed to this political deal in 1948 there were about 400 religious Jews at stake, now the number has risen to about 60,000.

This agreement has torn Israeli society ever since. It has been a bitter point between those who feel they are contributing to the country by serving in the army for three years and those who are perceived as dodging hard work for the comfort of studying at Yeshiva schools.

Netanyahu recently managed to consolidate his political power in Israel – adding the centrist Kadima political party to his government, and making it one of the strongest political coalitions in Israel’s history with 94 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature.

So there has been political pressure for the government to take on the controversial draft issue. Many secular Israelis see the strength of Netanyahu’s coalition as a historic opportunity to change the long-standing agreement with the ultra-religious Jews and come up with some kind of agreement where they can be enlisted into the Army or some other form of non-military national service.

Committee rendered powerless
Netanyahu himself appointed a committee to try to resolve the thorny issue – only to dissolve it on Monday of this week – days before it was supposed to release its findings. The move sent political shockwaves through the house of parliament. 

Baz Ratner / Reuters

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men attend a protest against a new conscription law that might force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army, in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood, June 25, 2012.

For the past month, Kadima party member Yohanan Plesner has taken on the role of trying to create a new groundbreaking structure that would ease the burden off of the civilians who serve in the army and find a way to enlist the ultra-religious, as well as Arab-Israelis.

Plesner held a press conference to announce the panel’s findings anyway – despite the fact that the committee had already been disbanded by Netanyahu – rendering it toothless.  

The 90-page interim report “can lead to a fundamental change in Israeli society by creating a new social treaty that will see more sectors of the society shoulder the burden of service,” a summary of the report stated.    

The Plesner committee suggested a universal draft for all Israeli citizens and suggested inflicting economic sanctions against Yeshiva schools that refuse to send their students into the army.

See a summary of the report’s findings from YNetnews.com   

‘A national mutiny’
Religious leaders, like Rabbi Azienshtien, expressed anger at the proposal. "Plesner doesn’t understand our world, his decisions have no practicality,” said Azienshtien. “Not one Yeshiva student that wants to continue studying will be drafted against his will. If he has to go to jail, he will go to jail. There will be a national mutiny.”

Azienshtien wasn’t the only one mentioning the word mutiny.

Another recommendation by the Plesner committee was to apply universal service to the 1.4 million Arab-Israeli citizens living in Israel who make up about one-fifth of the population.

Raja Agbrya, a member of the High Arab Follow Committee, expressed outrage at the suggestion, too.  "We totally reject this proposal. Even if this law will be implemented, we will disagree and we threaten to carry out a national mutiny."

The Arab-Israeli community claims they are treated as second-class citizens in Israel, so why should they give back.

The Plesner committee’s argument is that the move would “pave the way for the Arab sector's better integration in Israel's social and political fabric.”
The ultra-religious Jews who are furious about the idea of any change to their status argue that drafting 60,000 new recruits would impose logistic, as well as ethical problems.

Since it is against ultra- Orthodox belief to be close to women, other than their wives, how would the religious men serve alongside female soldiers? Another issue they bring up is how would the army accommodate their dietary needs and supply them with the special kind of kosher food they require?

Photo Blog: Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest Israel military draft

Political will?
However, since Netanyahu dissolved the Plesner Committee already – any changes the group suggested seem moot for the meantime.  

But, the prime minister has not escaped coming under fire for caving to pressure from religious parties. Now his powerful coalition is threatening to dissolve itself. Kadima party leader, Shaul Mofaz, vowed to leave the coalition if no solution is found to the problem.

Plesner concluded his press conference by saying, "We do not wish to trample on any sector's rights. We aim to foster a historic change and create a more cohesive, united society."

The question now is whether or not Israel’s politicians will have the political might to make the changes. 

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