Attorney general said to warn coalition Haredi army draft proposal legally unsound

Amid backlash against draft legislation, treasury says extending mandatory service rather than conscripting ultra-Orthodox will cost economy more than $28 billion over 10 years

A reserves soldier, right, walks next to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man in the Old City of Jerusalem, January 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
A reserves soldier, right, walks next to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man in the Old City of Jerusalem, January 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara reportedly warned Sunday that she would be unable to defend a government proposal for a bill regulating military conscription for members of the ultra-Orthodox community, after draft wording of the measure was circulated earlier in the day.

The reported pushback by Baharav-Miara added to a growing backlash against the draft proposal, which included Finance Ministry figures showing the economy taking a hit of over NIS 100 billion ($28.5 billion) over the next decade if the army extended the time recruits must serve rather than drafting Haredi Jews into the military.

The proposed outline circulated Sunday would establish annual quotas for conscripting graduates of Haredi educational institutions, though these are unspecified in the legislation. It would delay enforcement for three years, and only allow financial sanctions rather than criminal ones for draft dodgers.

The proposal would also raise the age at which Haredi men would be too old to be drafted from 26 to 35, forcing them to remain in yeshiva an extra nine years if they wish to continue receiving exemptions.

According to Channel 12 news, Baharav-Miara told Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs on Sunday that the law as written would leave her unable to defend it should it be challenged in court, due to unspecified “significant and essential difficulties.”

The government is scrambling to pass a law on drafting ultra-Orthodox before next week, when current provisions extending rules guiding exemptions which were struck down by a court expire.

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 issue has become a major fault line within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, with his ultra-Orthodox partners demanding legislation extending exemptions while other coalition factions, including members of Likud and the far-right Religious Zionist party, have been demanding — along with the opposition — that the Haredi community share the burden of military service with the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

War cabinet Minister Benny Gantz warned Sunday that his party would leave the war-time coalition if the bill were enacted in its current form. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has said he would not support the bill without the backing of the whole coalition.

The issue has come to a head as the army has sought government approval to extend service time for recruits to make up for manpower shortages amid the war in Gaza and hostilities along the northern border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, and Minister Benny Gantz attend a press conference at the Defense Ministry, in Tel Aviv. December 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, the government has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, announced earlier-than-planned draft dates for some 1,300 members of pre-army programs, and pushed to significantly increase both conscripts’ and reservists’ periods of service.

But many in Israel’s mainstream say ending long-standing draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox could make up for the shortfall without further stretching burdening those already serving.

‘Long-term damage’

A memorandum drawn up by the Finance Ministry’s budgets department found that the proposed extension of mandatory military service would cost the economy NIS 104 billion ($28.5 billion) over the next decade and require the government to shell out an extra NIS 41 billion ($11 billion), Channel 12 news reported Sunday.

The memo, signed by department chief Yogev Gardos, noted that if the Haredi community enlisted at rates similar to the non-Haredi Jewish community, mandatory service, which is currently at 32 months for men and 24 months for women, could be cut by seven months, and reservists would only need to be called up for a few days every year, instead of several weeks.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The paper also found that forcing Haredi men to remain out of the labor pool until they are 36 to receive exemptions would cause “long-term damage to the Israeli market and economy.”

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid the draft for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption.

According to the IDF’s Personnel Directorate, some 66,000 young men from the Haredi community received an exemption from military service over the past year, reportedly an all-time record.

A law that authorizes these exemptions expired in June 2023, and a temporary regulation that extended it is set to expire next week, after which the military will not be legally authorized to exempt Haredi young men from the draft and will need to start enlisting them.

Israeli policemen try to forcibly remove ultra-Orthodox protesters demonstrating against against their planned conscription into the Israeli armed forces, in Jerusalem on March 18, 2024 (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

As the deadline nears, the coalition is reportedly hoping to delay the legislation by three months, which alongside the current Knesset recess, would push the issue to next year.

The High Court struck down legislation allowing for the blanket exemption of Haredi men from military service in 2017 as discriminatory and gave the government one year to pass new legislation that would boost levels of ultra-Orthodox military enlistment.

It has since given the state innumerable extensions to that deadline due to elections and other reasons.

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