The politics of burden

Kadima has left the coalition over the issue of the haredi draft bill to replace the Tal Law, which gives ultra-Orthodox men a blanket military deferment. The Likud wanted to draft the haredi men at 26 years of age, Kadima wanted 23. Never mind that the average Israeli wanted the age at which haredi boys are drafted into the army or national service to be 18, when everyone’s sons and brothers go in. The politicians were busy with their own calculations of power and survival, not universal equality and social justice. It was all a ruse: at 21 a haredi man is married already with a child. At 23 he has two children. At 26 he already has up to 4 children. There’s not much the IDF can do with a 26 year old haredi father-of-four. He’ll be more of a burden to the army, and his family, at that stage of his life. This whole debate was not about the haredi draft, it was about political calculations ahead of the next elections. Why can’t haredi boys go serve at 18, and then, when they reach 21, go work during the day and study at night? They can. Of course they can.

“I’m determined to bring about a dramatic increase in the proportion who share the burden [of service] among Haredim and Arabs alike. We will no longer permit the situation of those who don’t serve to be equal to that of those who do. Draft-dodgers won’t get what those who serve do,” PM Netanyahu said last Wednesday, laying out his vision for a Tal Law replacement.

Netanyahu painted himself into a corner when he dissolved the Plesner Committee to Advance the Equality and Sharing of the Burden, which he himself established several weeks ago. When the committee’s recommendations started leaking out, and Netanyahu saw its latent political carnage to his coalition, he dissolved it.

By not coming to agreement with Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, and having Mofaz leave the grand coalition of 94 MKs, Netanyahu has squandered an historic opportunity to redress the structural imbalance and inequality in Israeli society. Netanyahu said he wants “a more equal” sharing of the burden, not “an equal” sharing of the burden. There is an important distinction there. Between “a more equal” and “an equal” sharing of the burden lies the concept of equality. You are “more equal” than me, still.

By scrapping the committee, and by dissolving his cooperation with Kadima, Netanyahu placed himself dangerously in opposition to the wishes of the majority of the secular, army-serving, tax-paying, workhorse public, who want the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army, do national service, and join the workforce. If Netanyahu has really chosen the haredim over the middle class, he’ll feel it in the next elections. He’ll be framing Mofaz’s walkout as an irresponsible act of a man who zig zags more than any politician on earth – while Netanyahu frames his decision as the “responsible adult” who wants gradual reform “without tearing the country apart.”

Netanyahu was in a tight spot. King Bibi was playing the Game of Thrones. Had he given his senior coalition partner Shaul Mofaz everything he wanted by adopting the Plesner Committee’s recommendations pal mal, he would have given the credit for redressing a hugely unpopular historical imbalance to Kadima’s chairman, who would have benefited from this in the next elections. And Netanyahu didn’t want to strengthen his chief rival for the prime minister’s office in the next election.

That would have been be silly…

Which is why Netanyahu is now trying to find a formula which, on the one hand signals to the secular majority that he is moving to change the current reality [of non-haredi military service, and Israeli Arab non-participation in national service] while on the other hand keeping his haredi political partners in the coalition. Now that Kadima is out, Netanyahu is no longer King Bibi.

I pity Mofaz. He now stands at the helm of a fractured, mutinous Kadima, which will surely tank at the polls. And he also has the return of Ehud Olmert to worry about…

In the end, it all came down to politics, as usual.

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