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In Israel, efforts to draft new draft law flounder

July 2, 2012 | 12:15 pm

JERUSALEM -- Israel's latest attempt to reform its military-draft law has failed, as the committee assigned to determine means of including more ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs was unable to "formulate a recommendation that would achieve a Knesset majority," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday.

The failure could hurl Netanyahu's newly expanded ruling coalition into political crisis.

The Plesner Committee -- named for its chairman, lawmaker Yohanan Plesner -- was appointed six weeks ago to draft recommendations for replacing the law, extended periodically, that grants sweeping exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who are full-time Yeshiva students. In February, Israel's Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional and said it could not be extended past the next expiration date, July 31.

After that, the nation's mandatory draft law would ostensibly apply to tens of thousands of Torah scholars, currently exempt from service, unless the government replaced it with new legislation. In theory, 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students of draft age could be declared AWOL on Aug. 1.

Military service is mandatory for Israeli citizens, although the law is not enforced equally. Ultra-Orthodox Torah scholars have been exempt from service since the early days of Israel, when they were perceived as a reminder to the world of the Jewish scholars who perished in the Holocaust.

When Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, made that original decision, there were 400 such scholars. Today, there are about 60,000. Increasingly, Israelis demand that members of all parts of society pull their weight when it comes to public service, if not in the military, then through civilian work.

In May, the Kadima party, which wants draft reforms, agreed to join Netanyahu's coalition, making it one of Israel's largest ever, with 94 members out of Israel's 120-seat parliament.  

Now the new alliance is threatened by the same crisis it was formed to deflect, as Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz rejected Netanyahu's statement Monday and threatened to quit the the national unity government if Netanyahu did not genuinely pursue a solution.

Kadima has demanded personal sanctions be imposed on Yeshiva students who evade the draft or civil service in the future. The Plesner Committee's informal representative of the ultra-Orthodox community dropped out in response. Two right-wing factions also dropped out on learning that sanctions would not apply to Arabs shunning the requirements of a proposed service-for-all law.

The number of young Arab citizens of Israel enlisting in national civilian service programs, including work in hospitals and community programs, has been steadily rising in recent years. But some young volunteers warn that mandating such work will backfire, and other members of the Arab public, who make up 20% of Israel's population, are enraged by the prospect of compulsory service for a state they feel discriminates against them.  

Mofaz faces pressure from within Kadima to hold his ground, including demands that he pull the party out of the coalition if Netanyahu opts for a watered-down solution to preserve his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Sensing a potential political crisis, Mofaz canceled a working visit to Europe planned for this week and went to meet with Netanyahu instead.

After the two met, Netanyahu said in a statement that he remains committed to "a more equitable division of the burden" and that he will continue working for greater equality among the ultra-Orthodox and Arab publics without pitting one group against the other.

Netanyahu added that if there were no agreed solution by Aug. 1, the Israeli army will draft citizens according to its needs, albeit "taking into consideration the various publics."


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-- Batsheva Sobelman