The legislation aimed at replacing the Tal Law is now in limbo after Yisrael Beytenu announced Thursday it would no longer participate in the multi-party committee scheduled to issue its recommendations on the matter in less than a week.
The chairman of the hard-line party, Avigdor Lieberman, said he made his decision following the committee's decision to avoid legislation that would apply the mandatory conscription or national service requirement on Israeli Arabs, first reported by Israel Hayom.
The Tal Law, enacted a decade ago, effectively exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews who opt to study in Yeshivas from military service. The High Court of Justice has recently declared the law unconstitutional and said it must be replaced by Aug. 1 with a new law that does not discriminate against those who do serve in the military.
Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem, who quit the committee, told the Knesset channel Thursday that his party would reconsider its decision if the committee discusses mechanisms that would end the waiver Israel Arabs now enjoy.
Arab lawmakers were furious at the prospect of compulsory service. "Arabs don't have to be the victims of the Jewish war between Lieberman and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu," Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi of the Raam-Taal Party told Army Radio on Friday.
Top coalition lawmakers said Thursday that if coalition factions fail to agree on a specific language of a bill it will not pass a Knesset vote. This would increase the likelihood of early elections. Netanyahu met with Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz on Friday morning to try and iron out some of the outstanding issues. Coalition Chairman MK Zeev Elkin (Likud) and MK Yohanan Plesner, who heads the committee, also participated in the meeting.
The main bone of contention relates to the proposed sanctions the committee members want to impose on haredi yeshiva students who dodge the draft and do not attend yeshiva. According to the proposed sanction mechanism, a yeshiva student who refuses to join the military or perform national service (and is not included in the list of outstanding students who would be exempt from service altogether), would have to reimburse the state treasury for all the financial assistance he was granted, on top of a special penalty. He would not be entitled to lower property tax rates or National Insurance payments..
The ultra-Orthodox parties vehemently oppose the proposed sanctions, as does Elkin, who thinks the Yeshivas themselves, not the individual students, should face sanctions and that this would be sufficient.
The committee decided on Thursday not to legislate a mandatory service requirement for the Arab sector, citing the complexity of the issue and time constraints. Right-wing MKs have threatened to oppose the proposed law if the Arab sector is not included and called for a gradual increase in the number of Arabs who would be called to serve in national service each year, with the goal of the current level of 2,000 rising to 6,000 in 2016.
In response, Yisrael Beytenu issued a statement saying that "in light of the Committee to Advance Equality in Sharing the Burden's decision to favor the Israeli Arabs and exempt them from serving the state — which undermines the notion that the burden is shared equally — Yisrael Beytenu has decided to end its participation in the committee and will submit legislation that would require every segment of the population to carry an equal share of the burden."
The so called "service-for all" bill sponsored by Rotem would apply the mandatory service requirement across-the-board including to Arabs, at the age of 18. Unlike the Plesner committee, it does not have a mechanism for deferment until the age of 22. The New National Religious Party (NNRP) followed suit and announced it would leave the committee as well. NNRP faction leader, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz said that "in light of the committee's emerging recommendations about exempting Israeli Arabs from national service I do not see a way to have NNRP stay on the committee."
Netanyahu held a series of meetings on the new Tal Law on Thursday. "The committee's decision [not to recommend a blanket Arab requirement] runs contrary to my directive," Netanyahu said in one of the discussions."Having everyone bear their equal share of the burden must also apply to Arabs; the law that I will submit for a Knesset vote will incorporate this principle as well."
Netanyahu also met with Arab MKs Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al), Jamal Zahalka (National Democratic Assembly), and Mohammad Barakeh (Hadash) and reportedly told them that "Like the ultra-Orthodox, you must embrace the new reality; Israelis must all share the burden equal in a fair manner."
Senior sources inside the coalition say that Netanyahu may choose to ignore some of the likely recommendations that will come out of the committee, as he has already said he would do when it comes to Israeli Arabs. Netanyahu also plans to oppose individual sanctions on yeshiva students and the proposed quotas on students who would receive exemptions.
However, if the haredi parties vote against the eventual bill, Netanyahu would have to retain Kadima's support, and hence Thursday's meeting with Mofaz, Elkin and Plesner.
Political sources believe the haredi parties can eventually be convinced to stay in the coalition even if the bill passes. Shas has already hinted it is willing to compromise but United Torah Judaism has not made public its position on the emerging provisions of the bill.
A statement released by the Plesner committee soon after Yisrael Beytenu's announcement said that "the decision represents a populist move by a party that knows how to preach equality but has no intention of launching any meaningful initiatives that would further this equality. The Plesner committee considers across-the board conscription of all Israeli citizens a national goal. Yisrael Beytenu has chosen to use inflammatory rhetoric rather than continue to engage in joint staff work that would bring about the integration of thousands of Israeli citizens. Too bad the political interest trumped the sense of responsibility; this hampers the effort to seize the historic opportunity by applying a comprehensive and balanced solution that would effect real change."
At the so called Sucker Encampment (set up to protest the disproportionate share of the burden that IDF soldiers and reservists have to bear in light of the effective blanket waivers under the Tal Law) some 150 IDF disabled war veterans gathered in solidarity with the campaign organizers.
Boaz Nol, one of the encampment leaders, said Thursday that "the Prime Minister is trying to buy time to avoid having to make a historic decision. The Prime Minister is right; the mandatory service requirement must apply to everyone, but we fear that behind this lofty rhetoric lies an attempt to avoid making a choice and that eventually he would ask the High Court of Justice for a stay [on drafting a new law]."
Nol went on to say that "The Prime Minister and Mofaz must seize this opportunity to pass the current legislation on haredi conscription as per the High Court of Justice order."
Hershkowitz also visited the encampment on Thursday, saying "we will not let the Plesner committee fudge this issue of haredi conscription; the NNRP will not partake in this effort to sweep things under the carpet — I demand an equal sharing of the burden by everyone."
At the Knesset Thursday, MK Moshe Matalon (Yisrael Beytenu) said, "Netanyahu has reached a point where he must decide who his real partners are — those who bear the burden or the draft dodgers." MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union) echoed Matalon, saying that "the Plesner committee has become a farce; rather than deciding on applying the draft to the Arabs, the committee is inching towards embracing a racist, and discriminatory policy that is biased toward the Arabs and guided by a hatred toward haredim." MK Yuval Zellner (Kadima) said he is certain that Kadima will not buckle in the face of political extortion and therefore Lieberman must retract his announcement (of leaving the committee) so that we can seize this opportunity and correct this historic injustice. Tibi, echoed his sentiment, saying "Lieberman's passion on having Arabs — whom he calls a fifth column — drafted into the army raises the question of whether [consulting guru] Arthur Finkelstein is the puppeteer and he is the puppet in this."