'If Hareidim Understood the Draft Bill, They Wouldn't Oppose it'
The Yesh Atid party has found itself at the center of more than a few political storms during the current Knesset - and its only hareidi MK Dov Lipman has often been placed under particular scrutiny due to his unique position, particularly regarding the contentious issue of drafting hareidi yeshiva students into the IDF.
Speaking to Arutz Sheva, MK Lipman said that despite media reports to the contrary, implementation of the recently-passed draft law is going "very well", and that the reason for hareidi hostility to the bill is the "huge gap" which exists both between the realities of the law and what the hareidi press has been reporting, as well as between the hareidi leadership and the rest of the community.
However, he cautiously suggests that those gaps - and in particular the former - are closing, and insists that far from alienating the hareidi public, the enlistment bill is speeding up their integration into Israeli society.
Regarding the law itself, Lipman clarified that "hysterical" predictions that it would usher in a campaign of arrests targeting the hareidi community were simply false. Far from targeting hareidim specifically, the law explicitly states that until 2017 hareidim will still be treated more leniently than other Jewish Israelis, and will not be criminally sanctioned for avoiding the draft. After that date, the only change will be that the hareidi sector will be treated the same as any other group, in that if they dodge army or national service they may face criminal proceedings.
As proof, he pointed to the fact that the campaign of mass-arrests predicted by many hareidi spokespeople "never materialized".
In fact, since the bill's passage in December, there have been only a few isolated cases of arrests. And even those cases, he points out, had nothing to do with the new law.
One high-profile episode occurred during the festival of Purim, nearly two months ago, in which a hareidi yeshiva student was arrested during the holiday. The incident sparked a series of protests in various hareidi population centers throughout the country.
What was conveniently left out, Lipman claims, was that the student in question was actually arrested for drunk driving.
"Only when the police took him to the station and ran some standard checks on his record they found that he had not turned up for his IDF summons and he was charged with that as well," he said.
In the few other isolated cases of arrests, the issue was that those in question chose not to turn up for their initial summons to the enlistment office (known as a tzav rishon) - even though that is precisely where hareidi men have always received their exemptions, and despite the fact that under current circumstances they would still be granted exemptions upon arrival.
When asked why his party opted for criminal, as opposed to financial sanctions - such as those proposed by the Jewish Home party - Lipman pointed out that in the initial coalition agreement Yesh Atid had indeed supported the financial option. However, legal experts had warned them that such a bill would be discriminatory and almost certainly fail in the courts.
"The families of non-hareidim who dodged the draft could turn to the court and ask 'why should our son sit in jail? We're also willing to pay a fine instead!'"
Furthermore, he added, such measures would be genuinely unfair, since they would create "a situation where the rich would simply be able to pay their way out of army service, and the poor would suffer."
MK Lipman added that beyond the sensationalist headlines, it is clear that the hareidi public has begun to understand that the law is not quite what they expected. Even many hareidi rabbis would privately agree that the law is actually not a bad thing, he claims, but that pressure from extremist elements makes it hard for them to admit that publicly.
"If you look at the protests which have been conducted, there's a subtle - but important - subtext. In general, apart from a few extremists, they have not featured fiery speeches against the law but have rather been more neutral 'prayer rallies'. It shows that deep down they know this is far from the 'catastrophe' they warned of."
He dismissed figures which claimed a drop in hareidi recruitment in the aftermath of the bill, saying that overall the numbers were actually up.
Those negative figures "were taken from the period immediately after the major prayer rally [in March]. In the period immediately after it there was a drop in enlistment, but it was only temporary - and to the best of my knowledge even that was only in relation to volunteers for [civilian] national service, as opposed to army service."
Jerusalem non-negotiable - Hevron less so
Lipman also addressed the failed peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, standing firmly behind the position of his party leader, Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
He said he believed a "negotiated two-state solution, which is the accepted template for any agreement" was still possible, but when pushed further, he conceded that the PA's torpedoing of talks meant that Israel would have to consider alternatives to that "accepted framework" in the absence of a viable partner.
The PLO's decision to forge a pact with Hamas was a red line, he said, as Yesh Atid is fundamentally opposed to negotiations with an entity which was aligned with Hamas, a terrorist group sworn to Israel's destruction.
"We're a centrist party, so as opposed to some of my colleagues in the opposition who think talks should continue regardless we view that as totally unacceptable."
Jerusalem is also non-negotiable, Lipman added.
But when asked about other important, ancient Jewish sites such as Hevron in Judea or Shiloh in Samaria - both of which served as Jewish capitals even before Jerusalem, but would likely be handed over to the PA under any agreement - he was less uncompromising.
However, support for such moves should be conditional on the government making adequate provisions to resettle Jews expelled from the area "as opposed to what happened to the Jews of Gush Katif, many of whom are still homeless."
"It would pain me greatly," he emphasized, particularly as an Orthodox Jew, but admitted that for "real peace" he would be willing to hand them over "as long as Jewish access would be guaranteed" by a "Palestinian state" in that area.
That's a pretty big "if", of course, particularly considering how similar guarantees by the PA as part of its commitments under the Oslo Accords fell flat, as Jewish holy sites - most notably Joseph's Tomb in Shechem (Nablus) - were destroyed by Muslim mobs immediately after an Israeli withdrawal. That's something he acknowledges as well.
Beit Shemesh - heading for a split?
Turning closer to home, in his hometown of Beit Shemesh, the one-time community activist is pessimistic about the future.
On the one hand "[Hareidi incumbent] Moshe Abutbul won the democratic elections in Beit Shemesh, and is therefore the legitimate mayor."
"I even personally sent him congratulations - but unfortunately received no response."
He added that the nine (out of eleven) non-hareidi members of the local council have also been given the cold shoulder. Instead of seeking to unite the different camps after a bitter election period as promised, it appears Abutbul is determined to ignore them completely.
So will the dark predictions of the city splitting in two come about?
"Of course everyone would much prefer to simply work together. There are many hareidim as well who don't have a problem living and working together with other sectors.
"Even the mayor, on a personal level, is the kind of person who would be open to working together with others," he notes, but says that extremist elements are placing considerable pressure on him not to.
"If that means that, regrettably, the city will only allocate housing and other resources to the hareidi community," then a split would be the only option left for other residents.