Law to draft ultra-Orthodox into IDF passes Knesset

Jewish Home MK lone ‘no’ vote on bill to levy criminal sanctions on draft dodgers; opposition boycotts session

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Jewish Home's Naftali Bennett seen with Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, after the Draft law passed unanimously in the Knesset, March 12, 2014. (Flash90)
Jewish Home's Naftali Bennett seen with Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, after the Draft law passed unanimously in the Knesset, March 12, 2014. (Flash90)

A controversial law levying criminal penalties on yeshiva students who dodge IDF service passed the Knesset Wednesday morning with near unanimous support.

With the opposition boycotting the vote, the Knesset passed the measure 65-1, with Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun casting the lone “no” vote.

The terms of the Equal Service Bill, approved by the Knesset’s Shaked Committee last month, stipulate a three-year transitional period which will begin once the Knesset passes the legislation. During those three years, a target will be set for the number of ultra-Orthodox enlistees each year. The target number will rise each year until 2017, when it will reach 5,200 new Haredi enlistees.

The measure has been vociferously opposed by the ultra-Orthodox community, which has historically enjoyed draft exemptions for Torah study. The law allowing for the exemptions was struck down in 2012, necessitating new legislation.

“I oppose the Draft Law,” Chetboun said in a statement. “It is ill-conceived, and comes at the peak of a wave of anti-religious legislation that seeks to dilute the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”

The opposition refused to participate in the Knesset hearings on the Draft Law and two other controversial measures — one on raising the vote threshold for parties to enter parliament, and one on a referendum on any land swap for peace — which they claim are anti-democratic.

The Governance Law, which passed Tuesday 67-0, increases the electoral threshold for political parties to enter the Knesset, which critics claim would force the Arab parties, which are small, to unite or be disenfranchised.

The Referendum Bill would establish a semi-constitutional Basic Law requiring a national referendum for any land withdrawal in a future peace accord. A similar law was passed in 2010, but its legitimacy was challenged in the High Court of Justice, since only Basic Laws can take power away from the Knesset. The bill faces a final vote on Thursday morning.

The most recent versions of the Draft Law faced scathing criticism from ultra-Orthodox leaders over the inclusion of individual criminal sanctions against draft-dodgers that would kick in if the community as a whole failed to meet rising quotas for the draft. But the bill has also faced criticism from proponents of an equal draft for delaying such criminal sanctions until mid-2017, after the next election.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox gathered at the entrance to Jerusalem for a massive protest against the bill.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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