New Israeli coalition confronts first challenge

A controversial practice that has allowed tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men to avoid compulsory military service has emerged as a looming test for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new coalition government — and one that could create major mayhem in the Jewish state.

Facing a court-ordered deadline, Netanyahu says he is committed to obeying the ruling and overhauling the system. And backed by his new coalition partner, Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz, he is in a strong position to overcome the objections of an increasingly agitated ultra-religious minority that considers the draft an assault on its way of life.

The issue of the draft exemptions was a key factor in this week's Israeli government shake-up.

Unable to bridge differences between religious and secular elements in his coalition, Netanyahu said Monday he would hold a new parliamentary election in September — more than a year ahead of schedule. Then, in a stunning last-minute reversal, he reached a deal to bring the centrist Kadima into his government, shoring up the coalition and averting the need for elections.

The new alliance gives Netanyahu a wide 94-seat government in the 120-member parliament, one of the broadest coalitions in Israeli history. With Kadima's backing, Netanyahu can no longer be held hostage by smaller parties who had threatened to bring down the government over the issue.

Conscription in Israel is 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.

At a news conference Tuesday, both Netanyahu and Mofaz said a resolution to the draft debate would be a main pillar of the new coalition's agenda. The Supreme Court declared the current system unconstitutional in February, and has ordered the government to come up with an alternative by July 31.

That will not be easy. Lingering rifts inside the government were evident on Wednesday, as ultra-Orthodox and secular coalition members sparred over the draft law.

Speaking to the Army Radio station, lawmaker Yitzhak Cohen of the religious Shas Party said "it's an illusion" to expect a court decision would force seminary students to serve in the military. Moshe Gafni, a leader in the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, warned of a brewing "cultural civil war."

But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the fiercely secular Yisrael Beitenu Party, said there could be no "foot dragging" on the matter. Lieberman's plan to push legislation ending the exemptions helped spark the coalition crisis that resulted in Tuesday's deal.

For now, both Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox factions — which each control about 15 seats in parliament — remain in the coalition, though it's possible some could defect as the government moves forward with new legislation over the summer.

An Israeli official said that Kadima will lead a committee to find a legally acceptable alternative to the outgoing system. The official said the government is committed to formulating a proposal by July 31. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal government deliberations.

The official said a final plan was unlikely to demand that all ultra-Orthodox men enter the military immediately after the deadline passes. Instead, he said the plan would be implemented "incrementally," and probably would include an option to perform civilian national service instead of joining the army.

Officials also have said they want to compel Israeli Arabs, most of whom do not serve in the army, to do national service in schools and hospitals in the comparatively poorer Arab sector.

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 exempt from duty, which is otherwise compulsory.

The draft exemptions have become one 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.

Many secular Israelis have grown increasingly hostile to what they see as religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, who are about a tenth of the population of nearly 8 million and have pushed for gender separation in public places like buses and sidewalks.

The pattern of dependency in the ultra-Orthodox sector, where grown men commonly spend their day in religious study while collecting welfare, has added to the resentment. Studies show almost half of ultra-Orthodox men do not work.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among others, has warned that the community's high jobless rate is a threat to economic growth. Objections to the state subsidies given to the ultra-Orthodox helped fuel mass protests last summer against the government's economic policies.

The draft is just one of several contentious issues facing the new government. Another is the matter of Jewish settlements in territories Palestinians claim for their future state.

The Supreme Court has ordered the government to dismantle a pair of settlement outposts found to be built illegally in the West Bank. Hard-liners in the coalition oppose any move against the settlers, and still hope to thwart the planned demolitions by passing new legislation that would legalize the outposts.

Lieberman, a Jewish settler who is sympathetic to the outpost residents, called the issue a "test" for the government.

"I have no doubt the prime minister will do what all the elements of the coalition expect of him," he said.