JERUSALEM – Israel's vice premier demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accept a panel's contentious guidelines for reforming the country's military draft rules — but stopped short of explicitly threatening to quit the governing coalition if the Israeli leader refuses.
Shaul Mofaz, chairman of parliament's largest party, Kadima, told reporters Netanyahu "crassly" violated their coalition agreement on Monday when he disbanded the panel, which proposed ending sweeping exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men and penalizing them if they dodge the draft. Many Israelis deplore the privileges that the ultra-Orthodox receive, but Netanyahu is reluctant to alienate what are traditional supporters by adopting proposals they vehemently oppose.
"If the proposals aren't adopted we won't be able to look our sons and daughters in the eye," Mofaz said at the start of a Kadima faction meeting. "The ball is in the prime minister's court. It's a matter of days."
Despite his tough talk, Mofaz gave himself plenty of wiggle room. He demanded that Netanyahu accept the "principles" of the panel's proposals and not its details, and gave the prime minister no deadline for complying.
The two men don't have much time to dither: Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the government to modify its draft law by Aug. 1 to end the privileges for the ultra-Orthodox, who account for nearly 10 percent of the country's 8 million people and maintain they are serving the state by serving God. The current law has exempted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from serving in the military, even though conscription in Israel is supposed to be compulsory, with men over 18 serving three years in the military and women two.
Those who cannot or do not want to serve can do community service in schools, hospitals and other public institutions under draft rules, but the ultra-Orthodox are currently exempted.
Mofaz is a vigorous champion of universal conscription, and when he set aside his political rivalry with Netanyahu to join his government just two months ago, the two men said resolution of the draft debate would be a main pillar of the expanded coalition's agenda.
At the same time, Mofaz is known to reverse his positions, so his departure from Netanyahu's government is far from assured.
Netanyahu dissolved the draft reform panel after several members — including the representative of the ultra-Orthodox community — quit in protest. Two other committee members quit because the proposals didn't include immediate recommendations for mobilizing the country's large Arab minority for community service in lieu of the draft.
The Supreme Court ruling did not address national service for Israel's Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population and are largely exempt from the military.
The lawmaker assigned to oversee the reform of Israel's draft law — a member of Mofaz's party — held a news conference Wednesday to lay out the proposals, in defiance of Netanyahu's dissolution of his committee. Yohanan Plesner said the panel wants to see 80 percent of all ultra-Orthodox men of draft age mobilized by 2016 either for the military or community service.
Draft-dodgers would be fined thousands of dollars, stripped of government housing and tax benefits and liable to criminal prosecution. No more than 1,500 seminary students would be exempted each year.
The draft privileges for the religious date back six decades, when Israel's founders granted exemptions to 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust. The numbers of exemptions have steadily ballooned over the years, and today, an estimated 60,000 religious men of military age are exempted. The pattern of studying instead of serving continues long past draft age, with ultra-Orthodox men commonly spending their lives in religious study instead of working, while collecting welfare.
The draft exemptions and dependency of the ultra-Orthodox on government handouts have become two of the most contentious issues in Israeli society, part of a broader struggle between the secular majority and an ultra-Orthodox minority over the nature of the country.