In the space of a week, Benjamin Netanyahu changed his mind twice. Two weeks ago, after promising Kadima in the coalition agreement that he would accept the recommendations of the special committee on national service, he bowed to the pressure of the Charedi parties and disbanded the committee. Then, last Friday, following Kadima’s threats to leave the coalition, he recanted and promised to adopt the report of the now defunct committee. As this week draws to its end, he may be about to change his mind again, though the latest crisis on Wednesday is more likely the result of delaying tactics.
There is no mystery to these sudden changes of heart — the prime minister simply cannot decide which political goal to aim for.
He is aware that if he loses his coalition over the issue of drafting Charedi yeshivah students to the IDF, he is gifting a valuable campaigning platform in the next elections to Likud’s rivals. Both the centre-left — Kadima, Labour and Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party — and the right — Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu — would reap electoral rewards. However, if he betrays his strictly Orthodox allies by endorsing universal conscription, he greatly weakens his position in the coalition horse-trading that comes immediately after the elections.
In 1990, Mr Netanyahu defied his party’s line and voted in favour of direct elections for prime minister. After three such elections, the Knesset decided to return to the old system, whereby Israelis vote only for a party, and leave the elected members to squabble over the identity of the premier. Mr Netanyahu is the ultimate prisoner of this system.
If he has to choose, then he will have to make winning the next elections his priority, since if Likud does badly at the polls, then his relationship with the Charedi leaders will not matter much anyway.
That will mean, for now, supporting a law enforcing the majority of yeshivah students, and perhaps also Israeli-Arab youths, to participate in some form of national service. The public backlash against his dissolution of the Plesner committee proved, even before the protests on Saturday, that this is the summer’s hot-button topic. And, for now, he is going with the flow of public opinion, although his deputy, Moshe Yaalon, has been given orders to go slow in preparing the draft law.
He is hoping, though, that something will come along to distract the public’s attention. Last year it was a terror attack on the Sinai border, and then the Gilad Shalit deal. This year it may be war with Iran. Meanwhile, Bibi is playing for time.