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.
Lapid’s is not the first centrist party that campaigned on a platform of draft reform to achieve success in its first try for the Knesset. But every one that came before him crashed and burned because it was compromised by taking office alongside one of the dominant parties of the left or the right and failed to make progress toward equalizing the burden of national service.
But this time may really be different.
The last election was the first ever to be held in Israel that was not fought on issues of war and peace. After 20 years of attempts to trade land for peace, the overwhelming majority of Israelis have rightly given up on the negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that has proved that it doesn’t want peace. Instead, they are concentrating on domestic concerns and the economy. Lapid, who got stuck with the short straw in coalition negotiations and wound up with the unenviable task of having to balance the budget, won’t earn any glory in making the tough decisions about the country’s finances. But if Haredim really are drafted by the time of the election, he will have done what no other Israeli politician before him has ever come close to achieving.
If so, Yesh Atid will not only not be yet another “one and done” political flash in the pan, but could become the natural party of government rather than a partner to Netanyahu’s Likud.
There could still be plenty of pitfalls for Lapid and his law before it is enforced.
The new law will face constitutional changes on the grounds that it still affords the Haredim unequal treatment, albeit in a far less unfair manner than the status quo.
Even more seriously, Haredi protests and draft resistance could test the resolve of Netanyahu to keep his promise to both Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party to change the draft law. Earlier this week when Lapid had to threaten to bolt the government in order to get the committee to include sanctions against draft dodgers, Haredi leaders threatened to “fill the prisons” en masse rather than serve.
But these problems notwithstanding, Lapid has already taken a giant step toward doing what most Israelis have been begging their government to do for decades. If he can follow through, the sky is the limit for him and his party.