Many countries have been taken over by military juntas, but Israel seems to be a rare if not unique case of a country overtaken by draft-dodgers. Without understanding this rather bizarre situation, especially so given Israel’s renowned military prowess, it is not possible to understand the country’s current bind – nor where it is headed.
Anyone following the goings on in the country over the last several years is aware of current Prime Minister Netanyahu’s legal troubles. He has been indicted on several counts of accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust. Many explain his behavior over the last several years, most notably his vendetta against the legal system and the Supreme Court, as a response to his fear of being convicted and sent to prison. After dozens of his Likud Party colleagues abandoned him and started rival political movements, he has come to rely on an inexperienced and by all accounts unfit crew who have been unflaggingly loyal to him. This explains the egregious state of the country and virtually all the government ministries, which at best poorly administrated and mostly, much worse.
Yet this state of affairs explains only a portion of the problems Israel now faces. Netanyahu’s Likud Party constitutes only half of the governing coalition. The other half is comprised of ultra-Orthodox religious extremists and messianic activists of the extreme right. Most of the members of these two groups have not served in the army and their primary allegiance is to their rabbis, not to the state. Two of the parties explicitly state in their charters that they support the introduction of Jewish religious law over the whole country and believe even now that it supersedes Israeli law.
The ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, United Torah Judaism and Shas, oppose army service for their own young men. This is not because they are pacifists; in fact, they tend to be hawkish, but believe their electorate should only engage in Torah study, funded by Israeli taxpayers. They claim they contribute to Israel’s defense by praying for the troops, but others are drafted. In order to secure the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu promised them to pass a blanket exemption for all the ultra-Orthodox, who now compose approximately 12% of the population. In addition, he promised to double the already generous funding of their school system, regardless of their curriculum, which to date requires almost no basic studies and leaves its graduates unemployable. The dispute over the institutionalization of draft exemptions has been going on for decades, and if Netanyahu sees to the passage of a law, the self-defined super-nationalists of the Likud will be humiliated or perhaps rebel; if he doesn’t, his coalition may collapse. In the meantime, their contempt for the country and their insensitivity to the great sacrifices the rest of the population makes has dramatically eroded support for the Likud. By some polls the party had lost 30% of its voters since November 1st.
The other bloc within the coalition is the messianic group. Most of its representatives also did not serve in the army, either because they were rejected for their criminal records (such as the Minister of Police, ironically) or for other ways of evading the draft. Minister of Treasurer Smotrich claimed to be studying in a yeshiva, Minister for the Advancement of Women Golan claimed to be religious. Neither statements were true. They joined Netanyahu’s government for a variety of reasons but mostly for their agenda regarding the territories, which they seek to annex. They believe that the messiah is on his way, and that they are tasked with driving out all non-Jews from the country, while spreading Jewish settlement to every inch of territory now under Israeli military control. Here, too, Netanyahu is in a bind. Many of his promises are an outright violation of international law, while others are likely to start a war or continue the worrisome upswing in the number of terrorist strikes. Thus, if Netanyahu realizes his promises, the security situation will continue to deteriorate. This will be even more challenging given the animosity his partners arouse within the military. If he doesn’t keep his promises, these parties and their renegade supporters may well bring him into domestic conflict.
Netanyahu has decades of political experience, yet holding together an ultra-nationalist party, together with religious zealots and messianic groups, may be more than even he can pull together. In the meantime, a widening coalition of patriots is developing who are distressed by the cavalier attitude of the coalition members who do little to share the country’s burdens. Moreover, this relatively silent majority is awaking as its liberal values are being trampled by religious groups who reject such principles as equality among men and women, oppose the separation of religion and state, ascribe to patently racist ideologies, and are trying to change the state’s laws accordingly.
This week Israel celebrates both Memorial Day and Independence Day, near sacred holidays for the opposition parties and non- events for much of the coalition. How the two camps navigate this week may give some indication as to the longevity of Netanyahu’s government. It would seem that the coalition is likely to become unseamed.