Yohanan Plesner has been a Knesset member for five years. But until very recently, few Israelis had heard of the Kadima backbencher.
As a result of the coalition deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, Mr Plesner was appointed to head the special commission tasked with delivering a plan for drafting Charedi yeshivah students for national service. Now his name is synonymous with one of the most rancorous divides in Israeli society which is threatening to bring down Netanyahu’s mega-coalition, barely two months since it formation.
A more experienced politician would, perhaps, have sought a compromise between the demand of a majority of Israelis for equality in national duty and the steadfast opposition of the rabbis and their Knesset representatives to their young men being forced to leave their Torah study.
He could have employed delaying tactics, asking for more time to formulate his recommendations. But he powered ahead, despite the refusal of the strictly Orthodox politicians to co-operate or even appoint their own representatives to the commission.
The report was ready for publication this week. But at the last moment, Mr Netanyahu pulled the rug from beneath Mr Plesner’s feet and disbanded the commission without notifying Plesner or even his own new deputy, Shaul Mofaz. “The commission did not reach and agreed solution,” he argued, “and cannot formulate recommendations that will be approved by a Knesset majority”.
Mr Plesner was about to recommend allowing only a small proportion of students to remain in yeshivah after the age of 24 and the imposition of fines and sanctions against those refusing to enlist. Mr Netanyahu knows there is no way in the world that the two strictly Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, would remain for a day in a coalition approving such ideas. Although his coalition is large enough to survive their departure, he is looking beyond the next election. The Charedi parties have always been his trustworthy partners, a key component in a right-wing religious political bloc, and he can’t afford to antagonise them.
Only two months ago, Mr Netanyahu was being heralded as a political genius, having effectively finished off the opposition by bringing Mr Mofaz into his cabinet and creating a coalition supported by over three-quarters of the Knesset. Mr Plesner has now ruined all that and the least of Bibi’s worries is that he has to come up with a national service formula for the yeshivah students in four weeks or risk censure by the Supreme Court.
Mr Mofaz is threatening to leave the coalition if he does not fulfil his side of the bargain and accept the Plesner recommendations. A number of Kadima MKs have signalled their intention to vote against the coalition on all matters.
If his decision to stick with his Charedi allies is final, the prime minister has to reschedule those early elections, only now he has given Kadima and his other rivals a stick to beat him with.