Haredi military service long overdue

Israelis are used to surprises. So this week’s announcement of a new unity government, while unexpected, was par for the course in a country where coalitions are made and unmade with the speed of an F-16.

And in this case, the results could be far-reaching, if the coalition’s stated aims are indeed as presented, and if its leaders have the cojones to push them through.

Pundits are predicting that in bringing the centrist Kadima party into his government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is signaling a more moderate tone that his advisers insist is closer to his personal beliefs. He’s been hamstrung, they say, by the need to placate the more hard-line members of his coalition, notably Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, to keep them in the government.

Indeed, at the press conference announcing the new coalition, Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz — now Israel’s deputy prime minister — pledged to “change the agenda,” and Netanyahu said he will pursue a “responsible peace process” with the Palestinians. The likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran also seems reduced.

And in what is likely to have the greatest domestic impact, the two are promising to eliminate haredi Orthodox exemptions from military service.

This is huge. Since the founding of the state, ultra-Orthodox men have been able to avoid the military service that was incumbent on their less-observant peers. It’s long been a sore point with the secular public, which feels it has  shouldered too much of the country’s defense burden.

Several months ago, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law that granted military exemptions to haredi men, and demanded that an alternative be in place by Aug. 1. The Mofaz-Netanyahu coalition has said it will propose a Basic Law requiring universal military or civilian service for all young Israelis.

The proposal will undoubtedly receive tremendous backlash from the haredi population, as well as from the military — what will they do with tens of thousands of religious male recruits who refuse to interact with female soldiers?

The logistics have yet to be worked out. But the principle of giving back to the state is a good one, and long overdue. Whether by bearing arms or by teaching children, young Israeli citizens — secular and religious, Arab and Jew — will be personally invested in their country’s well-being in a way too many of them have not been until now.

Mandatory national service for 18-year-olds: good for Israel, and not a bad idea for the United States, either.