As Israel heads into its third round of elections in a 12-month period, one number continues to hold its political process hostage. Both leading parties—Likud, and Blue and White—will likely be able to create sizable coalitions following the March 2 elections, but without the support of Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and his voters, we are not likely to see a different outcome than we did on April 9 or Sept. 17. Neither coalition will be able to garner the necessary 61 mandates to form a new government.
To make matters even more challenging, Yisrael Beiteinu’s support has increased significantly today compared to two years ago. The main reason for this is that Lieberman has latched onto the issue of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) involvement in Israeli society, and first and foremost in the Israel Defense Forces. The one number causing Israel’s political logjam is the number of permitted haredi draft deferments. Arguably, it is disagreement regarding this one number that is ultimately sending Israel back to the polls.
Two years ago when he decided to abandon the coalition over Israel’s policy with regard to the Gaza Strip, Lieberman had six mandates. Today, he is consistently polling and receiving eight or more, and those additional mandates may be enough to swing the election. Many on the right are clearly frustrated with the Yisrael Beiteinu leader and believe his actions to have less than pure motivations.
They say that before, he was most concerned about the need for a stronger Israeli military response, but now he’s concerned about the impact of the haredim on Israeli society. He said he’d be part of the coalition, then he abandoned it. They say he picked a new issue just to gain traction. However, the question of whether or not his concern is genuine is irrelevant. Those in leadership positions would be wise to examine why he is attracting a larger following and try to resolve the concerns he raises. Otherwise they will have little hope of drawing from his voter base or attracting him to rejoin their coalitions, in which case the March 2 elections may well produce the same result as the last two elections.
Of all the issues non-haredi Israelis have with haredim, army service tops the list. The argument is, why should my son or daughter serve for three years or more of his or her life—and potentially lose their life—when the haredim don’t have to serve? The counter arguments are also strong: According to the Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC), between 10 percent and 15 percent of haredim do serve in the Israel Defense Forces, while many others do formal or informal national service with organizations like Hatzalah and others.
Further, while there are IDF soldiers who resent haredi lack of service, there are many soldiers who say that they are honored to serve in place of haredim who are studying and teaching Torah. What bothers them is that some haredim who are not joining the army may not be seriously studying or teaching Torah, either. Supporters of the haredim also point to the large percentage of secular youth avoiding the draft, not to mention the Israeli Arab population.
Some haredi schools do provide meaningful education focused on the sacrifice Israeli soldiers make and the ultimate price some families pay so that haredim can study Torah. It is also important to understand that haredim are far from monolithic in their thinking with regard to IDF service. Many members of Chabad in Israel, for example, send their sons to serve in the military. Sephardic haredi rabbis have traditionally been more moderate in their approach to IDF service, while at the same time other haredi branches have been more strident in their opposition to military service.
Another key to understanding the situation is that haredim take the Mishna (Pirkei Avot) seriously where it tells Jews to “make for themselves a rabbi.” Most haredim seek out and follow a rabbi’s advice on all major life decisions, such as participation in the IDF. Hence, like it or not, the rabbinical leaders of the haredi world are necessarily key players in finding workable solutions.
Lieberman’s campaign has met with mixed reviews. While some of his campaign ads have been called distasteful, inaccurate and unnecessarily derogatory, others have been clever. Indeed, Lieberman has struck a chord such that in addition to possibly picking up some former Kulanu Party members, he is also picking up votes from the more liberal religious sector. The larger concern though is that the overall impact of amplifying the divides in Israeli society could have impacts beyond this election cycle. If the campaign contributes to dehumanizing haredim and their families this could have potential long-term implications for the unity of the Jewish people.
Can the IDF do more to accommodate and tailor programs for the haredim? Probably. But the key is trying to find a way to honor Torah scholarship and provide a number of exemptions for the IDF and/or national service where there is agreement or at least grudging consent. Then the next step is to adopt an incentive and/or penalty system that is effective.
Looking in from the outside, it may be difficult to understand this situation. Yet, in a backhanded way, it should make every Jew smile inside: The real reason we can’t form a government is because we can’t agree on how many Torah students the government should exempt from army service to learn our holy texts. Should our precious Jewish nation exempt 500 or 5,000 Torah scholars?
Elections are anything but a unifying force in Israel. They are time when politicians unfortunately feel free to openly criticize each other in harsh ways. They bring out a crassness that Jews know deep down is not in keeping with the expectations of our tradition. If party leaders want to break the logjam and avoid a fourth election, they would be wise to find a resolution to this issue and openly share it with the public, with or without Yisrael Beiteinu’s involvement. God willing, Israel’s leadership will rise to the occasion.
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based natural resource consultant connecting Israel and the United States.