Situation 'totally different' than when the bill was drafted

Attorney general comes out against revival of 2022 Haredi army enlistment bill

Ministerial Committee for Legislation backs plowing ahead with measure despite opposition from Gallant, Gantz and Gali Baharav-Miara

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road and clash with police during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the Israeli army, on Route 4, outside the city of Bnei Brak, April 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road and clash with police during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the Israeli army, on Route 4, outside the city of Bnei Brak, April 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

A government bid to revive a 2022 bill that would slowly increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the military is legally problematic and does not meet Israel’s current military needs, the Attorney General’s Office told Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Thursday.

Despite Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon announcing that the Attorney General’s Office was joining an upswell of opposition to the bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government voted nonetheless to advance the legislation initially proposed by the previous government.

In a letter to Levin, Limon pointed out that the bill was drawn up in 2021 on the basis of data that is no longer up to date, and noting that the Israel Defense Forces and the security establishment were not consulted by the government about its proposal to recycle the old bill.

Netanyahu announced Wednesday that he would revive the 2022 legislation, which lowers yeshiva students’ age of exemption from military service, sparking criticism from within the government coalition — including from minister Benny Gantz, who had initially proposed the legislation two years ago. The prime minister said the bill would be revived after he failed to come to an agreement with his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners on new legislation to draft members of the ultra-Orthodox community into the Israel Defense Forces.

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid being conscripted to the IDF for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption, but courts have repeatedly struck down attempts to enshrine the process in law, and the government was recently ordered to pull funding for schools harboring draft dodgers.

The topic of drafting ultra-Orthodox community members into the IDF has gained renewed relevance in recent months as the army deals with manpower issues stemming from the ongoing war against terror group Hamas in the Gaza Strip and a possible future war against terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin arrives at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, February 5, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The constraints that the state and the IDF are currently going through are totally different from when the bill was being formulated and the main one is a significant and urgent shortage of manpower” due to casualties and the demands of the war, read the letter, sent to Levin on behalf of Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and released to the public.

“This results in increasing the burden on the demographic that does serve in the IDF, in the standing army and in the reserves,” it noted.

The war also significantly increased inequality between those who serve in the military and those who do not, Limon wrote, relating not only to the time devoted to the army but to actual danger to life and limb. “This should be included in the set of considerations that must be taken into account to create a balanced arrangement whose impact is proportionally equal,” he wrote.

Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara arrives to casts her ballot for the head of the Israel Bar Association at a voting station in Tel Aviv on June 20, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The letter noted that Netanyahu’s bid to advance the law without the involvement of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant or other defense officials was the cause of “special difficulty and complexity.”

Gallant has indicated he opposes reviving the bill.

Limon’s announcement that the Attorney General’s Office opposes the bill means it cannot be advanced via a streamlined process used for government legislation, although it could be advanced as a private Knesset member’s bill.

“An [ultra-Orthodox] enlistment arrangement cannot be accepted if it ignores security requirements, the security establishment, its economic consequences, and its impact on the public,” the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement.

Despite the AG’s position, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which determines whether a bill will be backed by the ruling coalition, approved advancing the bill.

The bill was first proposed in 2021 by the government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and passed a first reading in the Knesset in 2022, but efforts to bring it for final readings stopped when the Knesset dissolved for elections.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men near a sign reading ‘army recruitment office’ during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the military, in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Haaretz daily reported that during the committee meeting, Levin fumed that the attorney general was preventing the Knesset from deciding on the matter in a move he called “illegal.”

The legislation would lower the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi Torah students from the current 26 to 21 while “very slowly” increasing the rate of ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

In making his Wednesday announcement about the bill, Netanyahu called on all of the parties that initially supported it in 2022 to come out in favor of it once more.

However, he drew immediate condemnation as critics accused him of political maneuvering.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a vote on the ultra-Orthodox draft bill at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 31, 2022. (Flash90)

“The State of Israel needs soldiers, and not political exercises that tear the nation apart during a war,” Gantz declared, insisting that his proposal had been advanced in 2022 as an interim measure only.

When promoting the bill two years ago, Gantz insisted that it needed to be accompanied by efforts to extend the national service requirement to both Haredi and Arab Israelis.

During a press conference in February, Gantz and fellow National Unity minister Gadi Eisenkot presented an outline for the enlistment of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army, calling for an “absolute majority of young people” to serve their country. He subsequently complained that Netanyahu had ignored his proposal.

When it was initially proposed, the previous government hoped that lowering the exemption age would spur Haredi men claiming deferments to leave yeshivas and enter the workforce at a younger age.

Though the bill would ostensibly make life easier for yeshiva students, it was also fiercely opposed in the past by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who claimed it was a ploy to draw Haredim out of Torah studies and the Haredi way of life.

IDF troops are seen operating in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, May 14, 2024 (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The government was also expected to respond to High Court petitions demanding the immediate enlistment of Haredi yeshiva students on Thursday, ahead of a hearing scheduled for June 2.

The High Court of Justice ruled in March that the state must cease subsidizing Haredi yeshivas whose students are eligible for the draft since the legal framework for doing so has expired. As a result, Netanyahu has to deal with a severe political headache owing to the high priority Haredi political parties place on that funding.

The attorney general has also stated that there is no longer any legal framework to refrain from drafting eligible Haredi men into the army, meaning that there is now heavy political pressure on Netanyahu to come up with a legislative proposal that satisfies his Haredi coalition partners — or face a political crisis.

Jeremy Sharon and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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