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I am in Paris, working on my French, reading a lot, and using up all my vacation time before I take a leave of absence from CNAS at the end of the summer to spend a year working in the governmnent. You can expect my posting on the blog to be pretty light for the next month. For the past semester, though, we at CNAS have been really lucky to have had Hilary Polak as an external relations intern. Hilary's fluency in Hebrew and familiarity with Israeli politics and society really helped me, in particular, as I worked on our big Middle East report this past spring. Hilary starts at the Institute for the Study of War this month, but before she left, I asked her to help me make sense of the new service law that is causing such a ruckus in Israel.
More Israeli-Arabs, or Palestinian citizens of Israel, volunteered for civil service through the military than Haredi (also known as ultra-orthodox) Jews in 2011. Of the 2,400 Israeli-Arabs who volunteered, 90% were women, 40% Muslim, 36% Bedouin, 13% Christian and 11% Druze. For those citizens of Israel who are not obligated to serve in the military, the option of civil service in schools, hospitals, community centers, retirement homes and even ministries is available. The fact that more Palestinian citizens of Israel than ultra-orthodox Jews have opted to do national service is a symptom of a much larger, more grave and elusive challenge facing the State of Israel today. Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed and leads the new coalition government that holds a majority of 94 Knesset seats, has the chance to address this national issue and implement formative change, if he chooses to seize the opportunity.
You could say Israel is suffering from a serious “personality disorder.” The nation is undergoing an intense internal struggle to understand and define its current and future identity. The Jewish state that was built on the ideals of pluralism, democracy and liberalism, intended as a haven for all Jews and the majority of whose growth was initially shouldered by nationalist, non-religious kibbutzniks is realizing a greater threat than was ever anticipated is growing rapidly in their midst: the Haredim. What started in 1948 as a few hundred yeshiva students in the holy cities of Israel has evolved into the fastest-growing societal block in the country with an average of 7.6 children per woman, roughly triple the rate for the population as a whole, according to the Israeli government’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The Haredi population is exempt from military service due to their religious convictions, with 11% of 18-year-olds granted exemption in 2007 and a projected 23% in 2019, and they pose a severe strain the economy, challenge the progressive, egalitarian characteristics of the state and hold major sway in electoral politics.
This schism in Israeli society is an incredibly sensitive one, and it can be felt almost everywhere: from the apartment of a Russian Jewish family to an Arab village, from the urban metropolis of Tel Aviv to the agricultural kibbutzim. The atmosphere in Jerusalem is particularly difficult -- the air seems to be almost physically stifling. Popular culture, the news and the internet is swamped with material referencing the growing number of Haredim and the associated tensions. The lack of Haredi participation in the the military, an integral piece of Israeli society and a potential vehicle for upward social and economic mobility, places a huge burden on the backs of secular Israeli citizens. Secular Jews are forced to compensate for their absence in the military realm. In turn, Haredi Jews have their Torah studies financed by working Israelis. The ultra-orthodox who do volunteer typically belong to the Dati Leumi, or Religious Zionism, group, and most of them serve in combat units isolated from other sections of the IDF. There is a concern that these religious soldiers, operating in high-risk areas like Jenin, may choose to obey their religious obligations in place of official military orders.
In this tiny, dynamic country where domestic politics are almost inseparable from foreign and defense policy, how is Israel to address this problem? The new, centrist government coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, may hold the key to a solution. While the new government might not be able to ease the stress that exists between subsets of Israeli society, they can decide to capitalize on the opportunity to instate new laws and reforms to alleviate some of these issues. However, in order to do this, they must maintain the unity government at all costs.
The February 2012 Supreme Court ruling that the Tal law (the law granting exemption from military service to ultra-orthodox Jews) is unconstitutional has provided a window for action. Netanyahu has a powerful coalition where he does not need to comply with the demands of the religious parties like Shas and United Torah Judaism. It is doubtful that a Haredi draft will be established tomorrow, but the government can take serious steps toward improving the situation by crafting a new resolution that would coerce Haredi Jews to serve in the military. As a result, the Haredim could play a positive role in the economy and pay their dues to society. There has been a great deal of rhetoric surrounding this topic-- the majority of MKs and Israeli citizens are in agreement that Haredim should be subject to military service, and Netanyahu, Mofaz and Barak have all made statements in support for more inclusive conscription laws-- but so far, no one has made any concrete advancements on the matter.
There has been some movement on the settlement issue in the last few weeks. In Netanyahu’s first major move concerning settlements since Kadima joined his coalition government, he instructed his ministers to vote against a draft bill that would have retroactively legalized illegally built settler homes in the West Bank. The settlements are a contentious subject for the Israeli government, the Obama administration and other international powers. While this move might seem insignificant in the scheme of things, it may be the slightest intimation of where Netanyahu and his coalition are heading. How Netanyahu and Mofaz will address the religious, right-wing settlers with their newfound political clout in the long-run remains to be seen.
Netanyahu, with his keen political skills and significant Knesset majority, has the chance to go down in history as an Israeli leader who implemented important legislation at a crucial time. The new coalition has the opportunity to tackle real, serious issues-- like the swelling Haredi population and the burden they place on the whole of Israeli society, migrant workers, the settlements and even the peace process, among other things-- with more ease than many prior governments. Time will tell if he will indeed take on some of the most factious and emotionally charged topics that exist in Israel today, and how he will do so. Mofaz and Kadima must also prove they are players in the game and are crucial actors in the government assuming a more secular and middle position; if they fail, the 2013 elections may be their undoing. Israel desperately needs to look inward and deal with the complex side effects of her “personality disorder.” By focusing on improving Israel’s domestic policies, the unity government can ensure that the nation will be better equipped to face even greater security threats looming nearby and elsewhere in the international community.