Israel’s national service crisis

In Israel, the subject of national service has caused a major political crisis. Until now the situation has been governed by the Tal Law that allows the ultra-orthodox (haredim) ca. 40,000 exemptions from national service as well as all Israeli Arabs being exempted (although some volunteer to serve). For some time the secular Israelis (hilonim) have felt that this is unfair, that they shoulder the burden of defending the country while the others evade national service. This led to the organization of a “sucker’s camp” to highlight the unfairness of the situation and the activation of several political parties, such as Kadima and Israel Beitanu, that have been pushing politically for a new law. The case was taken to the Supreme Court which ruled that the current law is unjust and must be replaced by a more equitable one by Aug 1.

When Kadima joined the Netanyahu coalition government a month or so ago, this issue was one of the points negotiated by its leader Shaul Mofaz, that all young people should perfom some kind of national service, even though it need not be purely military service, such as medical or eduational services. In order to accomplish this Netanyahu established a special committee, the Keshev Committee, to look into it and make recommendations. This was chaired by MK Yohanan Plesner of Kadima and included members from all ethnic groups. However, the proceedings of the committee were not acceptable to some of those members and several resigned. This led Netanyahu to disband the Committee, leaving the matter up in the air. To fill the gap created by this vacuum, Kadima and Israel Beiteinu have proposed a new Law that would make national service mandatory for all young people of the age of 18, including haredim and Arabs. Now Netanyahu is between a rock and a hard place, because if he accepts this basic formualtion he will cause his religious coalition partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, to leave the coalition, and if he does not he might lose Kadima and IB. What’s a PM to do?

It is rumored that Netanyahu is in the process of sweetening the pie for the religious parties, so that they can swallow an equitable draft law, where the haredim and Arabs will not be forced to do military service, but will be required to do some form of national service, otherwise they will lose certain financial incentives, such as low interest mortgages. Meanwhile the hiloni parties will be satisfied with a law that includes all groups. In principle, Netanyahu must obey the Supreme Court and so will take this opportunity to equalize national service, which will help to unify the country. On the other hand, there are those who say that the inclusion of haredim and Arabs into the IDF will be its downfall.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.