Yesh Atid leader Finance Minister Yair Lapid said Saturday that his party would pull out of the ruling coalition if a bill mandating military or national service for the ultra-Orthodox is not passed.
The implementation of such a bill was a central pillar of Yesh Atid’s platform in the last general election.
Speaking to Channel 2, Lapid said that Yesh Atid, which commands 19 Knesset seats and is the second-largest party in the coalition, “will not sit in the government if the law [mandating] a ‘shared burden’ is not passed, and it needs to be real. If there are no criminal sanctions” against ultra-Orthodox men who dodge military service, “we will quit the government,” Lapid said.
He noted that while the Shaked Committee, a parliamentary committee formulating the government’s equal draft bill, will debate this week a clause in the new bill relating to criminal sanctions, Israeli law already makes draft evasion a crime.
One unnamed lawmaker who is a member of the Shaked Committee told Haaretz on Sunday that the existing prohibition against draft evasion, long ignored via an IDF policy of granting special exceptions to ultra-Orthodox men, means that criminal sanctions were already instituted for refusal to serve “a long time ago. There will be criminal sanctions if the ultra-Orthodox public does not meet the draft quotas to be determined,” the member said. “The discussion at the moment is whether to impose economic sanctions before the criminal ones, and at what point precisely the criminal sanctions will be applied.”
Lapid said he “was not surprised” by the violent riots that broke out last week after an ultra-Orthodox man was arrested for not reporting for the draft and funding was cut for seminaries whose students did not register for the draft. It will be a “painful period” of “social revolution,” Lapid said, which will bring “threats and anger,” but the issue is “an open wound” for the country which must be dealt with.
The bill will pass, Lapid predicted, and noted that the bill in its current form enjoys majorities in both the Shaked Committee and in the larger Knesset.
The committee, headed by Jewish Home faction chair MK Ayelet Sheked, is due to meet this week on Monday and Tuesday mornings for a series of votes on its clauses. The next draft of the bill, which has already passed one reading, is to face its next vote in the Knesset plenum in March.
The arrest of an ultra-Orthodox man who refused to enlist in the IDF sparked widespread protests throughout the country Thursday, as thousands of Haredi demonstrators demanded the young man’s immediate release from army prison and called on the government to reinstate payments to religious seminaries which were frozen earlier in the week by the Finance Ministry.
Earlier in the week, Lapid brought a halt to state payments to religious seminaries that are attended by ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to register for the draft. Lapid’s freeze order on the funds came just hours before the cash was due to be paid out.
Shaked denied last week that an agreement had been reached by committee members on a formula for enforcing the eventual law by imposing criminal penalties on those who try to evade service.
In an interview with the ultra-Orthodox Kol Hai radio, Shaked said the committee was still working on a text for the controversial bill that will be acceptable to all parties.
Earlier in the day media reports claimed that four senior members of the committee, representing the Jewish Home, Hatnua, and Labor parties, had secretly reached an agreement on the nature of criminal charges that would be brought against ultra-Orthodox men who try to dodge the draft.
On Thursday, Yedioth Ahronoth published details from a proposed version of the bill that is to be voted on by the committee next week. The newspaper said that the bill would lay out quotas for the coming few years, based on an increasing percentage of the total number of ultra-Orthodox eligible for national service.
Israeli men and women are usually drafted into the army at the age of 18. However, ultra-Orthodox Israeli men were mostly exempt from army or national service until July 2012, when the Tal Law, under which the special exemptions were granted, was declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Justice. The dissolution of the law has forced parliamentarians to draw up new legislation that would conscript ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab men into the military.
According to the report in Yedioth Ahronoth, in 2014 the planned quota is 3,800 men, or about 47.5% of all ultra-Orthodox men eligible for army service. Of that number, 2,300 are to inducted into the army and 1,500 will do civilian national service. In 2015 that number will rise to 4,500, or 56% of the available manpower, 2,700 of whom will go the army and 1,800 to national service. In 2016 the quotas will aim at 65% of the manpower with 3,200 joining the army and 2,000 doing national service.
Ultra-Orthodox men will also have the option to put off their service each year until the age of 24, on condition that the annual quotas are met by other recruits.
However, the thorny issue of how to enforce the quotas with criminal penalties remains undecided.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and other community leaders have been pushing back hard against enlistment in the army, which they fear will make it harder for their followers to keep a strict interpretation of Jewish law and will prove spiritually perilous due to potential mixing with the secular population.
Adiv Sterman and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.