At cabinet meeting, PM and ministers pillory Gallant over enlistment legislation

Defense minister accuses Netanyahu of trying to link hostage deal with ultra-Orthodox enlistment issue for political reasons, says such rhetoric is ‘dangerous and irresponsible’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant attend a press conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant attend a press conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

During a contentious cabinet debate on boosting the Israel Defense Forces’ wartime manpower on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his government harshly criticized Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, accusing him of playing politics by refusing to support an ultra-Orthodox draft law unless it earned broad consensus.

As the cabinet discussed a defense establishment proposal to extend mandatory service for men to three years, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi attacked Gallant, asking why the defense minister is ready to support this measure without opposition support but won’t do the same when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill currently making its way through the Knesset.

According to leaked comments published by national broadcaster Kan, Karhi argued that failing to pass the Haredi conscription legislation “will lead to the collapse of the coalition, which will harm the security of the country and give a victory to [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar.”

Talk of seeking broad agreement on the matter is “code for giving Gantz an opening to overthrow the government,” Karhi insisted — seemingly doubling down on his prior allegation that Gallant was serving as a “proxy” for the opposition’s MK Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu reportedly agreed, calling Gallant’s stance on the Haredi draft bill “the height of cynicism and politicization.”

The Haredi enlistment law “significantly increases the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox,” Netanyahu reportedly said. “The need to give Gantz the veto is politics. They [the opposition] don’t want conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, they want a crisis.”

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi speaks at the Knesset on January 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is currently working on an ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill that chairman Yuli Edelstein (Likud) has also said will advance only if there is “broad agreement,” angering Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox, who see it as the only way to prevent a mass mobilization of yeshiva students.

If passed, the legislation would set the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students at 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

Gallant, who has said he will only support legislation on the matter if it has broad buy-in, was the only member of the coalition to vote last month against reviving the bill, which initially passed its first reading under the previous government.

Gallant had come into Sunday’s meeting intending to discuss the need to grow Israel’s military manpower pool, arguing that extending mandatory service while also increasing the age of retirement for reservists would actually decrease the number of days spent in reserve duty overall.

PM said to accuse Gallant of trying to bring down coalition

However, the conversation quickly derailed, with the prime minister accusing him of working to topple the government and of tying the ultra-Orthodox draft to the issue of a truce and hostage deal with Hamas, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

Despite the fact that members of the current government have called on Netanyahu several times to fire the defense minister, the level of criticism directed at Gallant during the cabinet meeting came as a shock — with Gallant expressing dismay over the fact that the attacks coincided with the nine-month anniversary of the Hamas October 7 attacks.

According to Kan, Environment Minister Idit Silman also weighed in against Gallant, telling the meeting that “in the previous government that I was in, no one sought a broad consensus. Not even Defense Minister Gantz.”

Then-coalition whip Silman’s defection from the previous government left it without a majority, helping pave the way for its end two and a half months later.

When the enlistment legislation was introduced under Gantz during the previous government, it was expected to be accompanied by a framework that would extend the national service requirement to ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, two groups that are both currently largely exempt. Gantz has vocally opposed the law’s resurrection, arguing that it cannot stand alone and also that it does not address the needs of a post-October 7 Israel.

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman speaks during a debate in the Knesset, August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Responding to his critics, Gallant hit back by saying that the government had refused to increase the length of regular service and raise the age of exemption from the reserves. “In the face of Iranian aggression they are [playing] politics instead of reaching agreements,” he said.

“There is a difference between the need to recruit soldiers and the need to exempt people from service,” Gallant added, explaining why he has taken two different approaches to the bills, one seeking to extend the length of mandatory military service and the other to recruit ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Relations between Gallant and Netanyahu have been tense ever since Netanyahu announced he was firing Gallant in March 2023 over his criticism of the government’s judicial overhaul — before reversing course two weeks later under intense public pressure.

Responding to Netanyahu’s criticism in a statement on Sunday evening, Gallant said: “This is a sensitive time. We need to make an agreement for the return of the hostages [but] the political attempt to link the release of the hostages with an exemption from conscription for the ultra-Orthodox is dangerous and irresponsible.”

Silman: Struck would have prevented October 7

At the same cabinet meeting on Sunday, Silman also reportedly called for the appointment of Haredim to senior positions in the military and asserted that far-right Settlement and National Projects Minister Orit Strock would have been able to prevent October 7 if she had been in charge of the IDF.

During the debate over extending the length of IDF soldiers’ terms of service, Silman declared that if Strock “was the chief of staff then there wouldn’t have been October 7,” the Walla news site reported.

Turning to representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Silman called on them to “bring holiness to the IDF,” stating that they “need to be in senior positions, including in the General Staff,” according to the Hebrew daily Maariv.

In a statement following the cabinet meeting, Gantz called the recruitment of additional troops “an urgent national need.”

“A law that grants exemptions in time of war [to Haredim] is an urgent coalition need of yours, and is petty politics at the expense of those who serve and of the national security,” the former war cabinet minister said.

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