Those who look at Israel only through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians have been paying more attention to Secretary of State John Kerry’s doomed attempt to restart the Middle East peace process than it deserves. But for those who understand that Palestinian intransigence doomed that effort even before it started, the real news in Israel has been going on in a negotiation between the country’s political parties, not with Fatah or Hamas. Yesterday’s decision by a Knesset committee to approve a proposal to reform the law governing the military draft could be the first step toward something that the overwhelming majority of the country truly cares about, by adopting a plan to require ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army much the same as other Jewish citizens.
The effort to share the burden of service is at the core of the complaints of the majority of secular, traditional and modern Orthodox Israelis who bitterly resent a situation whereby Haredim are excused from military service and don’t even join the work force. Removing the exemption for all but a handful of men studying in religious seminaries goes a long way toward ending a situation in which one sector of the Jewish community was able to avoid the obligations of citizenship in a nation that remains subject to military threats every day of the year. That the committee approved a version of the legislation that includes potential criminal penalties for Haredim that don’t comply with the requirement to serve is also a triumph for Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party.
While the law is still a long way from final passage let alone implementation, it has the potential to not only change Israeli society but also transform its politics. If Lapid, whose new party vaulted to a surprise second-place finish in the elections held in January on the basis of a pledge to change the draft law as well as his charisma, is actually able to make his promise a reality, it could give him the ability to mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the next time the country goes to the polls.
Last week, veteran Israeli-Palestinian peace process negotiator and author Aaron David Miller penned a column for the New York Times in which he wrote the following about Israel: “The country’s demographics look bad — too many ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and not enough secular Jews.” Normally, when someone looks at a country’s ethnic makeup and identifies the “problem” as the proliferation of everyone except his own kind, the very reasonable obvious objections will be made across the board.
Miller’s line did not engender this outrage, because it was aimed at Haredim, to which the normal rules of civility do not apply in the American media. But he came in for a walloping from what may seem an unlikely source: David Landau. Landau, the former editor of Haaretz, has made shockingly offensive comments about Israel, and is currently Israel correspondent for The Economist, a magazine whose Israel coverage includes just this type of casual bigotry toward the Haredim. (Three weeks ago, the magazine wrote that “the hallmark of haredism is intolerance.”) But Landau was so upset by Miller’s apparent ignorance that he rose to a quite effusive defense of the Haredim in an interview with his former newspaper:
“I’m sitting here and thinking to myself, ‘Could a non-Jewish person have written that?’” asks Landau. “Would Aaron David Miller have written in The New York Times that the demographics in Turkey look bad — too many veiled women and not enough secular Turks?’ Could he get away with writing that? I feel like saying to him, ‘Tell me, have you bothered checking the demographics of the Jewish community of Cleveland, Ohio, where you come from? Today, 49 percent of the Jewish children in New York are Haredi, so Aaron David Miller has to look in his own backyard before he makes this sort of statement. This is the kind of know-it-all elitism that has been so characteristic of the Diaspora Jewish leadership and the Israeli elite for so long. It’s pathetic, and if in this Economist piece, I’ve succeeded in making six people of consequence rethink Jewish demographics, then the whole thing was worth it.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to blur the distinctions between Haredim and Orthodox Zionists, maintains Landau, has contributed enormously to his political success. “The fact that it’s been so easy for Bibi to lump together all the Haredi parties with the settlers and make them the bulwark of his coalition — it’s remarkable when you think about it. Has anyone thought about the fact that there are really no Haredim in the West Bank? That in 2005 the Haredim joined Sharon’s government with the full knowledge that this would enable him to move ahead with the disengagement from Gaza? Why hasn’t that left an impact on people?”
As the Arab Spring drifts away from its democratic promise, there is one place in the Middle East where democracy is proving both resilient and capable of responding to a nation’s most intractable difficulties: Israel.
You can be forgiven for not noticing, as the normally Israel-obsessed Western press finds itself strangely tongue-tied on this matter, but the Jewish state appears to be on the verge of completing a reform of its law governing the draft of its citizens into national service. In a country where since its birth all non-Haredi Jews have been both legally and culturally bound to military service on their 18th birthday, the extension of that service requirement to the Arab and Haredi minorities, even if most will not serve in the military, would be a revolution of epic proportions.
In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.
Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.
Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.
After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.