Israel Pulse

Lapid renews push to draft ultra-Orthodox, is it worth it?

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Article Summary
Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid has relaunched a campaign over ultra-Orthodox drafting that the Knesset is about to change.

The Yesh Atid party has been waging a new campaign recently, to prevent what they described as “the repeal of the ‘Sharing the Burden’ Law.” This campaign is intended, first and foremost, to make the party and its leader, Knesset member Yair Lapid, relevant yet again in setting the country’s political-media agenda. That is something Lapid has had difficulty doing from the opposition benches.

The reason for the current campaign is the fact that by law, the government must submit its budget for approval in the next two weeks. Once that happens, a public debate will ensue over the coalition’s proposal to repeal one of Yesh Atid’s most important achievements in the last government: imposing criminal sanctions against ultra-Orthodox men, who refuse to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — and hence refuse to "share the burden" of military service. Repeal of the law is one of the commitments that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to the ultra-Orthodox parties, when he signed his coalition agreements with them last April.

Over the past few days, Yesh Atid has been trying to stir up a media storm and political brawl over the government’s plan to change the law, even though such a change should have been anticipated ever since the current coalition was formed. As part of its campaign to enlist public support, the party recruited the “Forum of the Struggle to Share the Burden” organization. On Nov. 4, an emergency meeting took place in the Knesset, with the participation of Yesh Atid and organizations working to promote drafting the ultra-Orthodox. In their discussions, it was decided to put up a protest tent outside the office of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon from Nov. 10 onward. The motto of that tent will be “Brothers in Arms.”

As usual, Lapid honed his message and became the first to fire on this battle’s political front, targeting both the prime minister and the defense minister. He opened a Facebook post on Wednesday by saying, “Netanyahu, Bogie [Ya’alon], [Naftali] Bennett, [Ayelet] Shaked, [Yoav] Galant and [Moshe] Kahlon, will you really vote against soldiers serving in the IDF? Will you really repeal the 'Sharing the Burden' Law for cynical political reasons?” Ever since the last March 17 elections, Lapid has been trying to get closer to the ultra-Orthodox as part of his strategy to win the prime minister’s office. That is why he is focusing his campaign on Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Finance Minister Kahlon, and not on the ultra-Orthodox parties, as he did in the previous government.

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Yesh Atid is the party most identified with the issue of “Sharing the Burden.” Lapid knows how to turn this slogan into successful campaigns, the greatest of which won him an impressive 19 Knesset seats in the 2013 elections. On the other hand, he also came to realize that this agenda turned him into the nemesis of the ultra-Orthodox parties, and that it could not get him much further ahead, beyond his election achievement. In the last election, his party dropped to just 11 seats. Now Lapid is trying to repent for the sin of using force against the ultra-Orthodox. He is trying to get closer to them for practical political reasons, but it is doubtful that he will succeed.

The day that the “Sharing the Burden” Law was passed by the last Knesset, on March 12, 2014, was a black day for the ultra-Orthodox, primarily because Yesh Atid was able to pass criminal sanctions against rabbinical college students who avoided military service. Yesh Atid took great pride in that enormous achievement, claiming that it would benefit Israeli society and the country’s economy. In a more condescending tone, they also said that it would help lift the ultra-Orthodox out of the circle of poverty. At the time, Lapid made another big mistake. He spoke openly about his huge victory over the ultra-Orthodox politicians, then sitting in the opposition because Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi prevented them from joining the government.

But the truth was a far cry from what Lapid described. The “Sharing the Burden” Law, which was passed in the Knesset, was far from being the ideal mechanism to stop the vast numbers of ultra-Orthodox young men who avoided military service with the protection of their rabbinical colleges, or yeshivas. While it did set rising caps on the number of ultra-Orthodox students who would be drafted, the law also included many compromises, such as allowing any yeshiva student to postpone military service until age 26, and determining that it would only go into effect in 2017. In other words, enough time was left for the next government to tweak the law, as is actually happening now.

The criminal sanctions were another mistake made by Yesh Atid. By way of contrast, the Plesner Committee, which attempted to advance similar legislation to extend the draft and equalize the sharing of the military burden back in 2012, suggested a variety of economic sanctions instead, preferring to use criminal sanctions only as a last resort. Lapid would later claim that he would have actually preferred economic sanctions, but that the attorney general prevented him from seeking them. Lapid said as much in an interview with Ben Caspit about two weeks before the 2015 election. Even then he realized that being positioned as an enemy of the ultra-Orthodox is an obstacle in the Israeli political game.

According to figures released by Yedioth Ahronoth on its printed version on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 4,800 ultra-Orthodox men now serve in the IDF, 1,200 of them as combat troops. According to the “Sharing the Burden” Law, another 2,700 ultra-Orthodox men will be drafted next year. Furthermore, a survey conducted recently by the IDF found that 80% of ultra-Orthodox soldiers who have been released either integrated into the workforce or went on to pursue a higher education. While Yesh Atid waves this achievement about, at a conference organized by Israeli daily Calcalist last February, the head of the IDF’s Personnel Directorate Hagai Topolansky noted that the situation is still far from being equal. Some 50% of the population does not serve in the IDF, and most of that number is made up of the ultra-Orthodox.

Lapid was wrong in not formulating the outline for the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men with the agreement of the ultra-Orthodox parties. By failing to do so, his political achievement turned into a double-edged sword, targeting him and the very issue of sharing the burden. He actually succeeded in turning the ultra-Orthodox into the most fervent opponents of an important social objective. He got hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators to take to the streets to protest against the government. Since then, an entire generation of young ultra-Orthodox men has been raised on stories about “the wicked Lapid’s evil decree.” Knesset member Eliezer Mozes of the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah party cried that, “Today, another chapter has been written in the terrible history of the persecution of the Jewish religion. This is a black day, forever to be recalled in disgrace.” Given the mood that was created, it is understandable why there are more and more cases of ultra-Orthodox violence against ultra-Orthodox Jews in uniform.

The situation got turned on its head in the last elections. The ultra-Orthodox returned to the government, while Lapid was left out. In the coalition negotiations, they demanded that Netanyahu overturn the criminal sanctions and postpone drafting the ultra-Orthodox until 2020. Their demands were accepted.

At the conference organized by Calcalist, the head of the IDF’s Personnel Directorate rightfully said that drafting should not be conducted by force. The public and political struggles over sharing the burden have gone on for years. In 2012, it even led to the collapse of the Likud-Kadima government. Now, however, it is clear to all that the solution to the problem must be reached through agreement.

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Found in: yesh atid, yair lapid, ultra-orthodox, knesset, idf, drafting of ultra-orthodox, draft law

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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