Shaul Mofaz’s decision to lead his centrist Kadima party out of Israel’s broad coalition government shows that there is at least one politician left in the Western world who has a bottom line, which he called a “red line.” Standing on principle, refusing to delay military or national service to age 26, Mofaz proclaimed: "He who says 26, doesn't want true equality." Mofaz’s departure–supported by all but three Kadima Knesset members–spotlights both the ideological fight over the Ultra-Orthodox role in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising failure to lead.
Using the “E” word–equality–mounts the ideological issue on two pillars. First, Mofaz and Kadima are fighting to make Israel a liberal democracy, which is a collection of individual citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, rather than a democratic republic, which is a coalition of competing groups. The “Haredim” should not have group rights–even though some legal wiggle room respecting their collective sensibilities is in keeping with Israel’s public character and the Zionist vision.
The second pillar is the “equity” part of equality. Mofaz is playing to the many middle class, non-Arab, non-Haredi Israelis who are tired of being “freirim,” the Hebrew word for suckers. Although the plain-speaking former general is not one for high-falutin’ phrases or philosophy, he is defending one of the modern democratic state’s fundamental building blocks–the Lockean social contract, wherein individuals sacrifice certain rights and take on particular responsibilities, including defending the collective against harm.
Mofaz’s move once again makes a mockery of all the Churchillian aspirations that Benjamin Netanyahu writes about in his books, casting the Israeli Prime Minister as more Chicago ward heeler than courageous statesman. Netanyahu’s deferral to Ultra-Orthodox sensibilities is curious. Ideologically, he is more of a liberal nationalist in the Menachem Begin-Ze’ev Jabotinsky tradition, and has blocked many of the more undemocratic and anti-libertarian moves proposed by some of his more authoritarian coalition colleagues. But on this issue of Haredi service his pusillanimous silence has been disappointing and self-defeating. If Netanyahu mimicked Mofaz and grew a backbone on this issue, he could not only calm the broad Israeli center, he could all but guarantee his re-election.
This issue demands more creativity and bolder leadership. For example, Netanyahu could demand all Haredim take on service as responsible Israeli citizens, while allowing a marriage exemption. This would protect the principle but give many Haredim, who marry young, an out that might be more palatable to the Israeli version of Joe Six Pack–call him Yossi Falafel–who in Israel too would be married to a soccer mom. Netanyahu could also pressure the Haredi rabbis, taking advantage of the hierarchies within the community. And, for someone who is so proud of his silver tongue, he could try addressing the people, articulating core principles, proposing a decent compromise, and affirming the kind of national vision so many Israelis yearn to hear from a heroic leader who does not fear his coalition members and does not succumb to Ultra-Orthodox threats.