Netanyahu faces tough decision on Israeli service

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a press conference May 17, 2012, in Prague.
AFP/Getty Images

(The New Republic) JERUSALEM - The long-running Israeli debate over who should be required to perform military or civilian service is coming to a head once again, heightening just about every fault-line in the country -- religious versus secular, Jews versus Arabs, left versus right. How this debate is resolved will influence not only the composition and duration of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, but also the future development of Israeli society.

The reason is this: Mandatory service is not just a policy decision; it goes to the heart of Israel's identity. Israel is at least as much a civic republic as it is a liberal democracy. Full citizenship in Israel is a matter of reciprocity -- obligations begetting entitlements (as opposed to America's conception of citizenship as an endowment of rights.)

Let's begin, then, at the beginning. Arab citizens of Israel are permitted, but have never been required, to perform either military or civilian service. For very different reasons, the same is true for the most religious Israelis. When the state was founded in 1948, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to exempt students involved in full-time study of the Torah from military service. The Nazis had destroyed the great eastern European centers of Jewish learning, and only a remnant remained in Israel. The exemption covered only 400 students, and Ben-Gurion reportedly believed that Orthodox Judaism would fade away.

That's not what happened, of course. Highly observant Jewish groups, known as haredim, became the fastest growing sector of the population, and the number of students exempted from military service multiplied many times over. By 1999, such students totaled more than thirty thousand. This made it more difficult for the Israeli Defense Forces to meet their manpower needs, and it created resentment in the non-haredim population, nearly all of whose sons and daughters did two years of full-time military service followed by many years in the reserves. Rising state subsidies to support haredim educational institutions and social services further soured the public mood.

Then the Israeli Supreme Court intervened, ruling that without appropriate legislation, the minister of defense had no authority to administer this ad hoc system of exemptions. In response, the government appointed the Tal Committee (named for its chairman, former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal) to devise a solution. Its report seeming did so, offering recommendations that the Knesset ultimately enacted. Under the Tal Law, yeshiva students would have the option of deferring military service until age 22, followed by either military service or a year of unpaid civilian service.

While this arrangement seemed reasonable, it soon unraveled. By 2005, the government was forced to admit that only a few dozen haredim students had enlisted in the army -- in part because the state had done little to enforce the law. The Supreme Court intervened again, giving the government a bit more time to get serious about enforcement.

In 2007, the Knesset renewed the law, which was scheduled to expire, for another five years. Once again, the results were meager. In February of this year, the Supreme Court ruled the Tal Law unconstitutional on the grounds that, as applied, it had failed to achieve its goal of fair treatment for all citizens. (The number of haredim youth eligible for but not performing military service has nearly doubled since 1999 and now exceeds fifty thousand.) In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed the Keshev Committee to "formulate a new policy that would guarantee a more equal sharing of the burden among all parts of Israeli society."

At first the prospects for this latest effort seemed dim. Netanyahu headed a narrow coalition that depended on religious parties for a majority, and these parties were dead-set against forcing yeshiva students into military or civilian service. But then, in an unexpected response to the prime minister's threat to hold new elections, the centrist Kadima Party joined the coalition, creating one of the broadest-based governments in Israel's history. And secular-leaning Kadima could be counted on to support the reforms.

But in Israel nothing is straightforward. Led by the fire-breathing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular parties (as distinct from the right-wing religious parties) demanded that not only haredim be made to serve in the military, but also Israeli Arabs, who have long resisted on the grounds that they could not reasonably be expected to serve a society that treated them unequally. And what about the left-wing parties, the right wing asked, some of whose young adherents resisted military service because they regarded the military occupation of the West Bank as illegal and immoral? (The left angrily rejected the purported equivalence between blanket exemptions and conscientious recusal.)

Against this backdrop, members of the reform commission began jumping ship, and much of the action shifted to behind-the-scenes efforts led by the prime minister, who reportedly demanded that the religious parties soften their position. These parties now seem disposed at least to negotiate.

William Galston is a contributing editor for The New Republic. He holds the Ezra Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a Senior Fellow. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.