The Draft

The Single Issue Postponing Israeli Politics

03.04.13 2:30 PM ET

Four weeks down, two to go. Saturday night, Benjamin Netanyahu entered the overtime period for forming a government. If Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi maintain their alliance, Bibi needs both of them to form a coalition. So let's review the issues to which the these parties devoted serious negotiations during those first four weeks:

  • "Equal burden": ending the yeshivah exemption that allows most ultra-Orthodox men to avoid conscription. Lapid's opening position was a plan that would cap yeshivah exemptions at 400 a year. Everyone else would be drafted; the army would choose the conscripts it wanted, and the rest would perform civilian service. Netanyahu, with an eye to his long-time ultra-Orthodox allies, opposed a ceiling on exemptions. In principle, Bennett has sided with Lapid.

That's it. Long list, isn't it?

I don't mean to dismiss the frustration of those who serve, the unfairness of an entire community insisting on a free pass while living on the majority's largesse. But how did this become the virtually the entire agenda of the decisive coalition talks?

To be fair, Netanyahu's wider effort to form a government raised a couple of other issues that, if memory serves, once mattered in our politics:

  • Peace with the Palestinians. Within those initial four weeks, Netanyahu did sign a coalition agreement with Tzipi Livni's Hatnu'ah. It authorized Livni—and only Livni—to handle negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Bennett, it's true, demanded changing that agreement—once the conscription problem was settled. Bennett's objections to Livni were to be expected: she wants two states; his party doesn't want to give up a spoonful of soil from the Whole Land of Israel. What's surreal is Bennett, and Lapid, treating this as the lesser matter—especially when the army is preparing for another Palestinian uprising against occupation and President Obama is expected a few days after the Knesset approves a new government.
  • The economy. This apparently was discussed when Netanyahu met with Labor's  Shelly Yacimovich; she says their diametrically opposed economic views are what makes his flirtations futile. In contrast, Habayit Hayehudi sources told reporters last Wednesday that the party was ready "to set meetings… to understand the budget." The economy is slowing down. Netanyahu's answer is budget-cutting, also known as austerity—which has worked so well in Spain, Britain, Italy and elsewhere—and privatizing more public services, a technique for eliminating job benefits and cutting salaries. And just three and a half weeks into coalition wrangling, Habayit Hayehudi thought of studying the subject. Yesh Atid's platform criticizes the Likud's "capitalist neo-liberalism." Perhaps Lapid's representatives will join the seminar.

And here are some other issues—just a sample—that could have been discussed in those 28 days:

  • Affordable housing: The economic protests of 2011—the largest protest movement in Israel's history—began with people who couldn't afford a place to live building a tent city in downtown Tel Aviv. Yesh Atid promised a public-private partnership to build 150,000 apartments in order to pull down prices, and a change in the criteria for public housing that now favor the ultra-Orthodox. The Yesh Atid plan doesn't fit Netanyahu's pure market policies. Nor does it jibe with Habayit Hayehudi's long-standing preference to harness the Housing Ministry for settlement building.
  • Civil marriage: Yesh Atid's success reflects, in part, public pushback against the power of clerical parties. The yeshivah exemption is one face of that power. Another is the fact that Israeli Jews can't do something as basic as getting married without turning to a state-approved rabbis. But raising this would also strain Lapid's alliance with Bennett.
  • Education: For years the government has been starving schools and universities, a perfectly insane policy in a country with a knowledge-based economy.
  • The core curriculum: A 2008 law exempts ultra-Orthodox yeshivah high schools from teaching basic subjects - math, English and more. The law merely confirms existing practice. Ending the draft exemption will not send ultra-Orthodox men into the workforce, because the education exemption leaves them unready for jobs or college. And the inequality of economic burden is what pushes the most educated of young Israelis to emigrate.

So why the singular focus on the draft? One reason is that it's the issue  that provokes the most emotion. Another is the strange constellation of the election results, which gives the Lapid-Bennett alliance the same parliamentary strength as the Likud. To maintain that power, they have to stick to what unites them.

They may succeed in creating a government with Netanyahu based on the common ground of a new conscription law. It's likely to survive only as long as they can postpone dealing with everything else that they should have put at the stop of their negotiating agenda.