The committee responsible for drafting an alternative to the Tal Law on national service convened for the first time yesterday. Although the committee was praised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials, there were no ultra-Orthodox or Arab representatives present. Their absence was notable because the Tal Law grants draft deferrals to the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens of Israel. Israel’s High Court of Justice found the law to be unconstitutional and ruled that it could not be extended once it expires on 31 July.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the committee hearings would enable the recently expanded government to carry out the first clause of its coalition agreement. “Two weeks ago we were in this hall, Shaul Mofaz and I, to announce the establishment of the broad-based unity government,” he said. “The first clause in the unity deal was to bring about an alternative to the Tal Law. Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz described yesterday’s meeting was a “historic moment as well as an opportunity to change the agenda in the State of Israel.”
The two largest ultra-Orthodox parties, the Sephardi Shas party and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism, have refused to send representatives as they do not want to be seen as cooperating with the government on an issue that their voters deeply oppose. Despite their absence prominent Israeli lawyer Jacob Weinroth, who is serving on the committee, is widely considered to be the ultra-Orthodox community’s unofficial representative.
Equally, Arab MKs and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee said they were not interested in joining the committee, although Netanyahu said one of the important elements of the panel’s work is to include both Jews and Arabs without setting one group against the other. He also said it was important to implement any changes gradually. According to reports in the Israeli press, Arab officials plan to conduct an unofficial dialogue with the panel, and committee chairman MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) has said he expects that an Arab member will eventually join the panel.
The panel is expected to complete its deliberations, which will take place three times a week, by 28 June, and to finish drafting the alternative to the Tal Law by 25 July.