Israel Pulse

Israeli centrist leader changes course on ultra-Orthodox draft law

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Article Summary
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid took a political gamble and appears to have won by supporting the coalition's proposed law on conscripting ultra-Orthodox males.

The Knesset on July 2 approved the first reading of a bill for drafting ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The vote was 63-39. At the request of the opposition, the vote was presented as a no-confidence measure, with the possible, but unlikely, outcome of toppling the governing coalition if it failed to pass.

It is still too early to know whether, in the long run, Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid’s decision to support the coalition’s Conscription Law was a successful political gamble. What can be said is that in the short term at least, Lapid has come away unscathed by the opposition party’s accusations that he saved the Netanyahu government and surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox by abandoning the most important banner issue on his agenda — conscription of the ultra-Orthodox.

The Conscription Law submitted by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman received the support of the IDF, including Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. It passed its first reading thanks to the votes of Yesh Atid, which is usually a much more belligerent opposition party. In this case, however, Lapid decided to side with Liberman, claiming that it was a good law based on a law formerly submitted by his own party. The law’s opponents argued that it lacks criminal sanctions or meaningful recruitment targets for the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox themselves outwardly opposed the law as well, but behind the scenes, they worked hard to ensure that it passed, having realized that they would never get anything better. If the current proposal failed, they would be forced to serve in the IDF.

Lapid and the other members of his party came under incessant attacks, mainly from the Zionist Camp, which portrayed Lapid as a political wheeler-dealer who betrayed his values and prevented them from bringing down the government. In the days leading up to the vote on the Conscription Law, Zionist Camp Chair Avi Gabbay flooded social media with a campaign targeting Lapid. In it, he accused Lapid of succumbing to “political wheeling and dealing with Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox,” of being stubbornly ignorant and of abandoning his supporters so he could rescue Netanyahu’s failed government.

Meanwhile, Lapid waged his own campaign in the media against the way he was being portrayed as a cynical politician. He emphasized his own message, claiming that he remains focused on issues, not politics, and that he would support a law that was good for Israel and had the support of the IDF. “The role of the opposition is not to oppose good and proper laws for the State of Israel and the people of Israel,” Lapid said.

Lapid’s meteoric rise in Israeli politics was largely due to his aggressive campaign to draft the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF. After the 2013 election, in which his party won 19 seats, he forced Netanyahu to form a government without the ultra-Orthodox and passed a historic Conscription Law in 2014 that included criminal sanctions against ultra-Orthodox men who avoided the draft. It was that law that made Lapid the great political enemy of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

After the 2015 elections, however, Lapid made all sorts of overtures to the ultra-Orthodox in an effort to reconcile with them. He did this because he realized that as a credible candidate for prime minister, he would not be able to put together a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties. Since then, he has been subjected to ridicule over his feigned empathy toward religion. In this case, however, he decided to take a far-reaching political step forward by supporting Liberman’s proposed law, replacing Lapid’s own law that was amended after the 2015 elections at the insistence of the ultra-Orthodox as part of the coalition deal.

Lapid has seen Yesh Atid voters slipping away over the last few months, yet he still decided to take a political gamble, even if it means losing even more support from his natural voter base, the very people for whom the ultra-Orthodox sharing the burden of military service is a banner issue, if not the banner issue par excellence. It was no easy decision, but the Lapid of 2018 is a pragmatic politician with realistic expectations.

Meretz Chair Tamar Zandberg attacked Lapid in a series of interviews, claiming that he had failed to understand the political opportunity offered to the opposition. She argued that the opposition lost its big chance to drive a wedge into the coalition and bring down a bad government. Is she right? Not necessarily.

If all the opposition parties had voted against the law, it seems likely that it would have been defeated in its first reading, because the ultra-Orthodox also voted against it. The ultra-Orthodox consider the law to be the least of all possible evils and actually wanted it to pass. That means that if Lapid would have opposed the law, the ultra-Orthodox would likely have acted differently, so as not to harm the coalition.

Lapid’s decision to vote with the coalition should be seen as a political move intended to make him more acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox. There are two possible scenarios as to how such could transpire. The first scenario is based on the assumption that after the next election, Netanyahu will form his fifth government. Lapid will join it as a senior minister, but for that to happen he will have to clear the air between himself and the ultra-Orthodox parties to make sure they don’t veto him. In the second scenario, Lapid recovers in the polls and is once again a realistic candidate for prime minister. Should that happen, he will also need to reconcile with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

To Lapid’s credit, it should be said that even if he showed political flexibility in order to become acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox parties, the Conscription Law that he supported is not a bad law. It makes it possible to begin the process of finding a solution, even if not a perfect one, to an issue that has been tearing Israeli society apart for more than two decades. That the law has the support of the IDF chief of staff is significant, since it provides the law with the professional and official coverage it needs.

That is why a poll released by Yediot Aharonot on July 4 found that Lapid wasn’t harmed at all by the law and that he remained at 18 seats. The poll also found that most of his voters, 70%, think that he was right in supporting the law and did not take him to task for failing to bring down the government. According to this poll, the Likud was not harmed either, because it approved the law. The poll gave it 33 seats. In other words, voters were not impressed by the opposition’s argument that this was a case of them surrendering to the ultra-Orthodox. Meanwhile, despite its aggressive campaign against Lapid, the Zionist Camp did not get any stronger and was left with 15 seats. As far as Lapid is concerned, this is encouraging evidence that his gamble paid off.

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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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