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With military draft reform, Netanyahu learns he can’t please everyone

Prime Minister Netanyahu is accused of catering to ultra-Orthodox with his stance on draft exemptions, but the religious group isn’t happy with him, either.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adeptly navigated Israel’s infamously volatile political landscape for more than three years – until this month. Now he is trapped between two diametrically opposed political forces – the ultra-Orthodox and the secular centrist and left parties – with no clear way of satisfying both as he heads into possible elections.

When the centrist Kadima party and its leader, Shaul Mofaz, bolted a 10-week-old “unity” coalition yesterday, accusing the prime minister of moving too slowly on the politically charged issue of ending military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews, the reputations of both politicians were tarnished.

Commentators pointed to the swift divorce as evidence that the leaders formed their match out of political convenience, rather than a joint desire to make controversial reforms, as they initially argued.  

In mid-May, Mr. Netanyahu reversed a plan to hold a snap election in September in favor of forming a broad coalition with Mr. Mofaz to tackle draft reform, election reform, and the peace process. The leaders touted it as a “historic” chance to change the draft system, which for decades has allowed thousands of ultra-Orthodox young adults to avoid the mandatory two or three-year military service and subsequent reserve duty by remaining in state-funded religious seminaries.

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For weeks, teams from the Likud and Kadima parties debated the terms of the reform. Kadima’s Mofaz supported stiff fines for draft dodgers and a maximum deferral of four years, while Netanyahu opposed the penalties and backed a longer deferral.

With speculation rife about an early election in which the draft could end up being a wedge issue, Netanyahu’s insistence on a gradual elimination of the exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews has exposed him to attacks that he is catering to the religious minority at the expense of the mainstream. That could become an election weakness for a candidate who until now had no serious challenger in sight.

“It will definitely hurt him,” said Shlomo Madmon, a Likud activist who fears that the party has been wounded. “Bibi stirred up the problem, and now he looks like someone who can’t disconnect himself from the ultra-Orthodox. He looks indecisive.” 

The draft exemption issue has recently gained prominence in Israel for several reasons: the population of the insular ultra-Orthodox community continues to surge as a percentage of Israel’s overall population; the Supreme Court ruled the exemptions were unconstitutional earlier this year; and, amid a wave of social demonstrations last year, a group of military reservists calling themselves “the suckers” set up a protest camp to speak out against the draft exemption.

Kadima’s exit leaves Netanyahu in command of a 66-seat majority in the 120-member parliament, down from the 94 seats secured with the unity coalition. When the Knesset returns from summer recess, his government will be required to pass the draft reform in order to comply with the court ruling as it fields accusations of preferential treatment for the ultra-Orthodox.

That’s why many political observers believe that he will wait another six months before a vote instead of setting a date in November.

“If they are held before the matter of the new draft law is settled, [elections] will revolve around the draft crisis,” wrote Itamar Eichner and Yuval Karni in the daily Maariv newspaper. “Netanyahu’‎s associates predict that in such a scenario the prime minister and his party would be vulnerable to harsh political attacks from both the Haredi parties and the left wing and center parties – which could harm their numbers and in an extreme scenario even lose them the leadership.’’

Though military service is a recent issue, mainstream frustration with the ultra-Orthodox’s outsize political influence has functioned as a wedge issue in previous Israeli elections, and fueled the rise of centrist parties pledging to pursue a secular agenda.

“People are outraged when you put the issue in front of them,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv pollster. But, she says, while the draft is liable to be a factor in elections, Israelis normally rank foreign affairs and security as more crucial. “Will they latch on to the issue and will this crack the code of the way in which they chose their party? I’m not sure.”