This is the week we will find out whether Prime Minister Netanyahu will go down in history as a short-sighted politician or a steadfast leader. This week the government will decide whether or not to implement the plan being put forth by the government’s own Plessner Committee. The Plessner Committee was tasked with devising a plan to deal with the problem of the Haredi community’s non-participation in the national burden. The pronouncements made this week will reveal whether Netanyahu is so fearful of upsetting his ”natural coalition” partners (the Haredi parties, especially Shas) that he might choose to make whatever law that passes meaningless; or whether he will, finally, start to come to grips with the largest internal challenges that Israel faces.
Among the mainstream Israeli public there are legitimate differences of opinion on a large range of political issues, including: settlements, negotiations with the Palestinians, and a host of other challenges. However among those who call themselves “Zionist”, there is no question that the burden of defense and government service need to be shared as equally as possible amongst all Israeli citizens. The situation will never be perfect. The fact that my daughters are obligated to serve in the army does not make me expect Haredi woman to serve, at least not any time soon. Though the fact that I have served in the IDF and my son will serve, makes me believe that any solution that does not put a nearly equivalent burden on Haredi men is unacceptable– both to me, and, I believe, to most Israelis.
In the last few days it has become apparent that the Plessner Committee was not going to be the average government committee looking to whitewash over the problem– but rather, a committee whose recommendations would be both real and with teeth. As a result, two things have happened: First of all, the Prime Minister has been holding desperate meetings with both Plessner, and Kadima leader Mofaz to change their minds. Netanyahu anxiously tried to convince them to suggest something more politically palatable. Second, Foreign Minister Lieberman announced that his party was pulling out of the committee, because the committee did not deal with the drafting of Arabs. Netanyahu immediately saw a great way out and announced that he would not support a law that dealt did not deal with the service for Arab population of Israel. Both their actions are completely transparent political maneuvers. Lieberman did not want Plesser and Kadima to suddenly get credit for one of his key elections slogans (even though he has never done much about it). Netanyahu saw a cheap way to create a train wreck of the Plessner Committee, rather than causing his coalition to implode. Both Netanyahu and Lieberman know full well that the mandate of the Plessner committee was to come up with a replacement for the Tal Law, which expires in one month. The Arab exemptions from the army fall under different regulations. While I favor required community service by Arab Israelis, that is part of a larger and separate process.
So how will we know if Netanyahu is a national-minded leader or a selfish politician? Netanyahu will earn an honored place in history if in the end his government supports a bill that does what is obviously just– if you do not serve the country, you do not get any government assistance of any kind– plain and simple. However, if his government backs an agreement with some sort of formulas that just provides some future funding cuts to Yeshivas if the number of Haredim who join the IDF does not grow, this would be a clear sell out. Another sign any agreement that the leadership of Shas can live with will be a sell-out.
The Israeli public will know what path Netanyahu chose. If Netanyahu wants to guarantee himself an easy reelection, then on this issue, he must support a real bill with real consequences. If he does not, he will find himself opposed by a suddenly relevant Lapid, and possibly even a “Lazarus-like” Kadima, rising from the dead to oppose him.
More importantly, if Netanyahu truly cares about the long-term survival of the Zionist experiment here in Israel, he needs to support the Zionist majority and provide a plan that will bring about real change. This is a unique moment. The Supreme Court has given the government a definitive deadline by which to make changes. For the moment, the government does not need the support of the Haredim. With a coalition of 92, Netanyahu has a once in a generation opportunity to make a serious change. If he does not do it, Netanyahu, “the Zionist” will miss a chance to save part of the Zionist Dream. This opportunity may never come again.