Status Quo Agreement

   Israel's religious structure stems partly from a compromise to obviate clashes that took the form of a so-called status quo agreement worked out by David Ben-Gurion with Orthodox and religious leaders and religious political parties on the eve of Israel's independence. The agreement proposed to retain the situation as it had existed upon independence: individuals would be free to pursue their religious practices in private as they saw fit, while in the public domain, there would be no changes in the prevailing situation. This arrangement thus continued the Ottoman Empire's millet system, which allowed each religious community to control its own affairs. This allowed preservation of a large system of religious (especially rabbinical) courts and other government-supported religious institutions. The status quo agreement allowed the Orthodox community to maintain and expand its efforts to assert control over various activities, periodically engendering public conflict and discussion.
   A particularly controversial dimension of the status quo agreement was the granting of deferments from service in the Israel Defense Forces for men studying in ultra-Orthodox rabbinical institutions. In December 1998, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the status quo agreement initially negotiated between Ben-Gurion and the ultra-Orthodox political parties to grant exemptions from military service to yeshiva students was unconstitutional; the court gave the Knesset one year in which to formulate new legislation effecting such deferrals. During the 14th Knesset (1996-99), Israel Labor Party leader Ehud Barak sought to introduce legislation in the Knesset that would effectively end most exemptions from military duty on religious grounds. This determination to change the status quo agreement was reiterated by Barak both prior to and since his election as prime minister in May 1999. The question of how to achieve this change was a key component of Barak's coalition negotiations with both Sephardi Torah Guardians (SHAS) and the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties in June-July of 1999. Shinui Party leader Yosef (Tommy) Lapid made the participation of ultra-Orthodox men and the status quo agreement an issue during the negotiations leading up to the formation of the various governing coalitions established by Ariel Sharon since his election as prime minister in 2001. However, while Lapid's strategy worked in 2001—in the sense that he was able to veto the participation of any ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition—in 2005, this hard-line strategy backfired, leaving Lapid and Shinui on the outside of a reconfigured Sharon-led coalition that included the ultra-Orthodox UTJ Party.
   In mid-December 2005, in the context of the campaign leading up to the election to the 17th Knesset, legislation was adopted to introduce a form of "national service" for those segments of Israeli society, including Orthodox rabbinical students, who were unable or unwilling to serve in military units on religious or ethical grounds. It remained to be seen what impact this legislation would have on the status quo agreement. On 11 May 2006, the supreme court determined that the legislation (known as the "Tal Law") providing for most exemptions from military service for haredi rabbinical students is in contradiction with the human dignity of those who serve in the Israeli army. However, the court determined that the law should be left untouched for an additional 1/2 years in order to examine if its application would improve. On 18 July 2007, the Knesset decided on an extension of the Tal Law for another five years until 2012. This effectively left in abeyance efforts to breach the societal chasm caused by the status quo agreement.

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .

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