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Israeli gov’t delays haredi draft bill to address critics’ reservations

The Netanyahu government decided to hold off on bringing its IDF enlistment bill to the Cabinet for approval.

Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, Dec. 19, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, Dec. 19, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

The Netanyahu government postponed a Cabinet meeting scheduled for Tuesday to approve the draft of a bill dealing with haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, enlistment in the IDF due to continued objections from the attorney general and other legal advisers.

On Monday, the government amended the proposal to address issues raised by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said she could not defend the bill as written.

However, it was unlikely the one significant change made by the government—involving the age at which haredi men would be exempt from draft—would be far-reaching enough to win the attorney general’s support as other problems remained, mainly that the outline, in her view, rehashed arrangements that had already been disqualified by the High Court of Justice.

The attorney general also took issue with the process by which the government arrived at the outline, saying it failed to seek “professional-factual” input from the “relevant government ministries.”

The general principles of the government’s proposal include gradually increasing recruitment targets for haredim, economic incentives (both positive and negative) to encourage service, and the creation of a special battalion to accommodate the religious sensibilities of the ultra-Orthodox, along with a track for haredim who wish to perform an alternative form of national service.

Joining the attorney general in criticizing the government’s proposal was the Finance Ministry legal adviser, Asi Messing, who sent a letter on Monday to the Prime Minister’s Office objecting to the government’s ignoring the economic impact of its proposal.

In the draft bill, under “economic consequences”—a standard section in every piece of legislation—the government had written simply, “Not relevant.”

“There are significant economic consequences for the condition of the state economy and the budget,” objected Messing, noting that the Finance Ministry believed that haredi recruitment would boost the productivity of the ultra-Orthodox population and increase their integration into the labor market.

He also complained that the professional staff of the ministry wasn’t consulted by the government.

Messing’s letter resembled one sent by Yogev Gradus, director-general of the Finance Ministry’s budget department, to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Sunday, in which he laid out possible negative economic ramifications of the government’s proposal.

This isn’t the first roadblock to attempts by the coalition to deal with the hot-button issue of haredi enlistment. The government originally wanted to bring its proposal to a Cabinet meeting on March 17, but pulled it when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Gantz expressed opposition.

When Netanyahu announced his next attempt this week, Gantz said he would leave the government if it passes the bill into law, arguing it doesn’t go far enough to solve the issue.

The High Court

Dealing with haredi enlistment has become urgent as a temporary order approved by the government in June delaying action on the matter expires this week. The High Court placed additional pressure on the government, ordering it to respond by the end of this week to a temporary order it issued last month preventing any further delay in the deferments for ultra-Orthodox recruits.

Also bringing pressure to bear are the needs of the IDF, which is short of manpower after deciding it requires a larger standing army in the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre. As a stopgap, the Knesset passed a temporary measure raising the age reservists must serve by one year. For non-commissioned personnel the age was raised from 40 to 41; for officers, from 45 to 46.

The move further exasperated the majority of the Israeli public, already angry at the decades-long, near-blanket exemption from the army for ultra-Orthodox men, whose leadership discourages military service and work, seeing them as corrupting and a distraction from Torah study.

The number of young haredi men studying in yeshivot and eligible for IDF service is estimated at between 63,000 and 66,000.

Since Oct. 7, only 1,140 haredim enlisted, of which 600 were over the age of 26, the current age of exemption for them.

While few disagree that haredi enlistment is a problem that needs to be addressed, some members of the coalition see the current effort to press the issue as intended to bring the government down.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi of Likud accused Gantz and Gallant of working together to topple the government.

“The matter of recruiting those ultra-Orthodox whose ‘Torah isn’t their livelihood’ needs to be corrected, but the false representation that there is an urgency to do this now in a manner that is ‘historic and without kombinot [Israeli slang for shady backroom deals]’ as Gantz said, is nothing more than a transparent manipulation to overthrow the government,” Karhi said in a long tweet on Tuesday.

“At the High Court, the attorney general (who should have been removed a long time ago), Gantz, Galant—with the support of the media of course—join together to overthrow the government,” he added.

Karhi claimed that the manpower issue could be solved immediately if the IDF would return to service tens of thousands of reservists who were exempted due to “laziness and negligence” when computer systems were replaced. “No one even tries to recruit them,” he said.

For over 70 years, a policy dating back to the nascent days of the Israeli state has allowed ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to indefinitely postpone their compulsory military service to pursue religious studies full-time.

While the exemptions were originally intended to only apply to a couple of hundred elite yeshiva students, over time they morphed into a broad deferral claiming nearly all males in the insular ultra-Orthodox community.

With a fertility rate double that of other Israelis and the exemptions perpetuating from generation to generation, the numbers taking advantage of the arrangement swelled.

Everybody knows

David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem, told JNS, “Everybody knows that the rapidly growing and politically muscular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel can no longer altogether avoid military and/or national service.

“However, ultra-Orthodox leaders will not relinquish their rigid communal structure of full-time and lifetime-long Torah study. Nobody can forcibly draft ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews against their will—no matter what the Supreme Court rules or the Knesset legislates,” he continued.

“Lots of committees and lots of efforts have been tried over the years, and nothing has worked. If there was a serious will to draft the ultra-Orthodox students, then there is a way. But first, there needs to be a will to do so,” Weinberg said.

“I’m not optimistic of there being a fix for this problem, and certainly not on the current political timetables as dictated by the High Court of Justice or the current government. Change will only come in the very long term.” 

Weinberg believes that yet another stop-gap solution will be found by the government and put in place in the meantime that will maintain the status quo for several years until the High Court strikes it down once again. 

Asked about the spike in ultra-Orthodox Jews joining the army following the onset of the current war against Hamas, Weinberg responded: “The current increase in ultra-Orthodox Jews enlisting in the IDF that we saw as a result of the war was coming from the fringes of that society and it mainly involved older men who have finished their time in yeshivah.

“These draftees are primarily serving in support positions and not as full-time soldiers. This doesn’t meet the needs of the IDF, which desperately needs more 18-year-old conscripts who can become full-term troops. So, it’s nice, but doesn’t deal with the real issues,” he said.

BDO Consulting Group, one of the leading business consulting companies in Israel, recently issued a report regarding this plan and stated that the increase will result in a loss of over 5.8 billion shekels ($1.585 billion) to Israel’s economy annually.

The report also stated that should the estimated 66,000 ultra-Orthodox students be conscripted into the army, it would alleviate much of the need for the increase in reserve duty and thus lower the economic fallout for Israeli society by an estimated 70%.

Raphael Poch contributed to this report.

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