Cabinet discussion on Haredi draft postponed amid marathon coalition talks

Under pressure to finalize legislative update before ultra-Orthodox exemption law expires, Netanyahu meets with faction heads on revised draft

File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the war cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the war cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A planned cabinet discussion on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed amendments to the Haredi military enlistment law scheduled for Tuesday at noon was postponed at the last minute as the premier held marathon talks within his coalition on the controversial reform.

The postponement came after National Unity party chairman and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz on Monday reiterated an earlier threat to bolt the coalition if an agreement cannot be reached on ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

Netanyahu released an amended version of the draft text on Monday following pushback from within his coalition and a warning by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara that she would be unable to defend the initial proposal in court.

According to Hebrew media reports on Tuesday morning, the attorney general requested revisions to the original proposal to include annual recruitment targets in pursuit of a “significant and gradual increase” in enlistment by yeshiva students and graduates of ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. The revised plan would impose financial penalties on yeshivas that fail to meet these quotas.

Channel 12 and Ynet reported that the attorney general has requested that the recruitment target figures be included in the legislation, while ultra-Orthodox parties reject that proposal.

The updated version — which had been set to be brought to the cabinet on Tuesday — removes from the measure a clause raising the age of permanent military exemption for yeshiva students to 35, which had generated widespread pushback among both opposition and coalition lawmakers.

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

It also calls for the legislation to be submitted to the Knesset by May 22, so that it can go through three floor votes and be passed into law by the end of June; and states that if the proposal expires without being implemented, the government’s previous instructions regarding not enlisting Haredim will no longer apply.

The change appeared to have been made to counter charges that the government hopes to delay the legislation until after the fall Knesset recess and thus push the issue into next year.

The decision to amend the government’s proposal came after the Finance Ministry released figures showing the economy taking a hit of over NIS 100 billion ($27.5 billion) over the next decade if the army increased the amount of time current recruits must serve rather than draft Haredim into the military.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — who has stated he cannot support any legislation passed without broad agreement from all coalition parties, especially Gantz’s — had also rejected Netanyahu’s initial plan, saying on Sunday that a flexible agreement on the issue was “essential for the existence and success of the IDF,” and appealing for a compromise to be found.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant leaves the State Department after meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the US State Department in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2024. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP)

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.

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, said to be an all-time record.

The 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.

As the deadline nears, the government has been rushing to legislate a new version of the law, with the ultra-Orthodox parties demanding continued exemption while other coalition factions, including members of Likud and the far-right Religious Zionist party, have been demanding that the Haredi community perform military service.

Speaking during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday morning, chairman Yuli Edelstein cautioned Netanyahu against attempting to bypass his committee in pursuit of his enlistment legislation.

“To my great regret, I am starting to hear rumors that they are planning some kind of attempt to bypass the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Apparently we proved in the last year that we are not a rubber stamp of the government,” Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said.

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman MK Yuli Edelstein during a debate on extending IDF reservists’ service in the Knesset on December 25, 2023. Credit: Noam Moshkowitz / Knesset Spokesperson

Explaining that no other committee has access to the relevant data or expertise, he warned that “any attempt to circumvent the Knesset’s regulations and prevent the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from dealing with the conscription law will be met with an appropriate response.”

Angered by the legislation, dozens of protesters demonstrated Tuesday outside of Bnei Brak’s Slabodka Yeshiva and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Standing on top of a full-size model “unity tank” across from the PMO, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War demanded that the government impose “equality” of the burden between Haredim, Arabs and secular Israelis, while a member of Israel’s Druze minority declared that “the homeland comes above all” and that everybody must serve.

The protest was planned to coincide with the now-postponed cabinet discussion of the legislation.

Protesters, many of whom belong to the Brothers in Arms anti-government movement, chanted “Equality for everyone” and “Elections now.”

“God is not on your side,” one of the protesters screamed into a bullhorn.

Standing atop the tank, Yaya Fink, a national-religious Labor party activist and one of the protest organizers, declared that “traditional Judaism” emphasizes both Torah study and service and accused the ultra-Orthodox of adhering to a Judaism of “evasion.”

National-religious political activist Yaya Fink demonstrates against the government’s proposed Haredi enlistment outline outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 26, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

“I finished 142 days of reserve duty a few weeks ago and I have another call-up order for a few months from now for another 50 days. So I’m going to do 200 days in 12 months,” Fink told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the protest.

“The security needs of Israel today are large and expanding and there is no other option than to change the historical discrimination that only part of Israeli society is enlisted while the others learn. So as a Zionist, as an officer in the reserves and as a religious person, I believe that we need to promote a new draft bill [promoting] equality,” he said.

Most Popular
read more: