The paradoxical Israeli domestic politics of accepting a cease-fire deal

GettyImages 2155171579

On May 31, President Biden announced a ceasefire proposal for the war in Gaza. Biden was clear that the proposal came from Israel and urged Hamas to accept it — even though his remarks indicated that Hamas would not play a future political role in Gaza and could not rearm.

The motivation for the Biden proposals, approved by the Israeli war cabinet, was to provide some vision of what “the day after” in Gaza would look like. It was also to stymie the departure of Benny Gantz and his National Unity party from the governing coalition. Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, joined the coalition in the aftermath of the Hamas massacres, but set a deadline of June 8 for critical decisions on “the day after.”

The past month has seen vastly increased attacks by Hezbollah against Israel’s north that have set that region literally ablaze. Thousands of acres in the Galilee and Golan have been destroyed by fire. Rhetoric is again at fever pitch, and 100,000 Israelis remain evacuated from their homes. Additionally, four more Israeli hostages were reported dead this week, putting further pressure on the government.

One paradoxical domestic issue is also playing part — the role of the ultra-Orthodox. On June 2, an expanded panel of the Israeli Supreme Court again heard arguments on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox (also called Haredi) men into the Israeli army.

Since Israel’s founding, Haredi men have been exempt from the army and any form of national service. Ostensibly, they are supposed to study the Torah. In 1948, the ultra-Orthodox were a very small percentage of the population, so the blanket exemption made some sense. Now, demographic projections are that by 2030, the ultra-Orthodox will make up 16 percent of the overall Israel population and 20 percent of the Jewish population.

For the most part, Haredi men do not work, do not pay taxes and rely on government subsidies. The ultra-Orthodox also represent the largest sector of Israeli families living in poverty.

This increased burden placed on the rest of Israeli society is bitterly resented, especially given the pressures of the Gaza War. Israel’s standing army is small, and it relies heavily on citizens serving reserve duties; the war has required Israeli reservists to serve longer and more frequent tours. This hurts not only the soldiers, their families and businesses, but wreaks havoc on the overall economy, especially coupled with the evacuations in the north. Making the ultra-Orthodox subject to military or national service is seen as a key to leveling out the burden of citizenship.

Israel’s Supreme Court previously ruled that the ultra-Orthodox must be drafted and/or funding for government religious schools must be halted. But since all Netanyahu governments over the past 15 years have relied on ultra-Orthodox parties to survive, nothing has been implemented. Ultra-Orthodox parties currently control 18 seats in the Knesset, or 15 percent.

The more conservative justices were at the forefront of ridiculing the government’s arguments for further delay. In one exasperated exchange, Justice Noam Sohlberg (whom Netanyahu sought to use to justify the attempted judicial coup in 2023) noted that in 2017 there was a declared capacity by the IDF to accept 3,000 ultra-Orthodox soldiers. Sohlberg incredulously intoned: “Now at a time of war, the army can’t absorb 3,000 soldiers?” Israel’s own attorney general opposed the government’s position.

Making the ultra-Orthodox subject to the draft could bring down Netanyahu’s coalition on its own. Paradoxically, at the same time, the two ultra-Orthodox parties have come out in favor of the Biden proposals — because redeeming hostages is considered an obligation under Jewish law — creating a majority in both the cabinet and the Knesset for the cease-fire plan.

Given right-wing opposition to the Biden proposals, there were rumors that Netanyahu might try to forge a new coalition. He recently offered the Defense Portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu aide and a former defense minister turned bitter rival. Lieberman leads Yisrael Beiteinu, an anti-Netanyahu secularist right-wing party that opposes the ultra-Orthodox.

The main opposition parties have promised Netanyahu a “safety net” for the purposes of a hostage deal and the Biden proposals, but not thereafter. Netanyahu has a comfortable Knesset majority for a deal — but he would lose his coalition, as the extremist wing, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, would bolt.

Even while waiting to hear from Hamas, the question is: Will Netanyahu support his own “Biden proposal” deal and place the interests of the country above his own? Or will he continue to say no to a hostage deal and the “day after” plan?

Jonathan D. Strum is an international lawyer and businessman based in Washington and the Middle East. From 1991-2005, he was an adjunct professor of “The Israeli Legal System” at Georgetown University Law Center.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top