It's summer, and that means it's protest season in Israel. Last year, the focus was on economic inequality, and how middle class Israelis can't make ends meet. This year, the demonstrations which have been gaining steam every week with more than 20,000 protestors this past weekend, are about army service for the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and Arab citizens of Israel.
The focus on expanding army service has given the protests that began last summer new energy and a new focus.
"The issue of conscription is a lifeline for the protest," Gidi Grinstein, the director of the Reut Institute told The Media Line. "The protests lost energy and steam. They also lost the credibility with the middle class because some of its key leaders became aspiring politicians and began to engage with political parties. They had no real agenda and some more radical and aggressive factions took over the protests."
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flip-flopped yet again over the recommendations of the Plesner Committee. The committee's goal was to formulate a replacement for the Tal law, a bill which allowed the ultra-Orthodox to delay army service virtually indefinitely. At the same, the bill did not permit Haredim to work until they completed army service. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled the Tal law unconstitutional and ordered it replaced by August 1.
Netanyahu disbanded the Plesner committee, headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, last week. But on Sunday, Netanyahu's Likud party unanimously approved the committee's recommendations and a new committee headed by Netanyahu and Vice-Premier Shaul Mofaz, who heads the Kadima party, is to come up with a new bill by next week.
"Everyone must carry the burden," Netanyahu told his Likud faction. "We will provide positive incentives to those who serve and negative incentives to draft dodgers."
Today, about 2,000 ultra-Orthodox Israelis serve in army units, with about 1,600 performing technical jobs and another 400 in combat units. The army has established special units to accommodate these soldiers. They are all-male units and the food served adheres to the strictest standards of kashrut, Jewish dietary laws. The soldiers are given extra time to pray three times a day, and the army makes a special effort to preserve Sabbath observance.
Yet, most Israeli analysts say that it is not likely that large numbers of ultra-Orthodox will join the army. Currently, some 62,000 students, age 18 - 23, receive army deferments. By age 23, most ultra-Orthodox men are married and are no longer candidates to serve.
"The ultra-Orthodox are very nervous, they understand that what has been in the past simply won't be any more," Yair Sheleg, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox at the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. "But they still don't know how big the change will be."
The ultra-Orthodox are being offered an alternative to army service - national service in schools, hospitals, etc. An increasing number are choosing this option, which may be more compatible with an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
Other analysts say that like everything else in Israel, the demands to draft Haredim are all about politics.
"The driving force of Israeli politics is the demographic rise of ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs who don't belong to the secular majority," Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the Ha'aretz newspaper told The Media Line. "For the past three years the entire political debate is about the shrinking mainstream trying to reassert itself."
Today, the ultra-Orthodox are about 15 percent of Israel's population and Arab citizens of Israel are about 20 percent. But about half of all elementary students are either Arab or ultra-Orthodox meaning that in ten years, they will make up 50 percent of the population.
The Plesner committee dodged the issue of Arab citizens serving in the army and agreed to investigate the issue further. It seems highly unlikely that large numbers of Arab citizens will join the army, although they are already doing more national service.
What everyone agrees on is the need for more ultra-Orthodox men to work instead of studying full-time. Women do work, but usually in relatively low-paying jobs such as teaching.
"Many of them do want to join the work force, they don't want to be poor any more," said Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute. "What happened to the ultra-Orthodox is the paradox of success because they succeeded in their fertility rate and demographically and also educationally, they can't live according to their former standards."
A law that would enable ultra-Orthodox to do either a shortened army service or national service and to then join the work force would lead to greater integration of the Haredim into broader Israeli society. That, in turn, would most likely lead to more ultra-Orthodox joining the army.
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