Cabinet expected to further extend emergency law raising reservists’ retirement age

Opposition slams coalition for deliberating extension at the same time it’s advancing bill to exempt most Haredi students from IDF service, with Lapid accusing government of ‘betrayal’

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"

Israeli Infantry reservists seen during light arms training in the northern Golan Heights before heading south to the Gaza Strip on October 8, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Israeli Infantry reservists seen during light arms training in the northern Golan Heights before heading south to the Gaza Strip on October 8, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The cabinet is set to discuss extending an emergency measure delaying retirement for IDF reservists on Sunday, less than a week after the coalition voted to apply “continuity” to a bill from the previous Knesset lowering the current age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students.

The proposal, a Defense Ministry-backed “draft Security Service Law,” calls to extend a temporary measure raising the exemption age for reserve military service from 40 to 41 for soldiers and from 45 to 46 for officers until the end of the year.

Specialists such as doctors and air crewmen will be required to continue serving until 50, instead of 49.

The current increase in the exemption age, which was initially passed by the Knesset late last year, is set to expire at the end of the month.

If eventually approved by the Knesset, the draft bill would mark the second extension of the measure, which was intended as a stopgap solution to prevent a mass release from the reserves of those soldiers reaching the exemption age amid ongoing combat operations in Gaza.

It was first extended for four months by 44-33 a Knesset vote in late February.

IDF troops seen operating in the Gaza Strip in this handout photo cleared for publication on June 11, 2024. (IDF)

According to the draft prepared by the Defense Ministry, due to “a very high volume of deaths and injuries as a result of the war, the IDF still needs a significant amount of manpower” and “the extension of the temporary order is required, at this stage, to allow the IDF to keep in service the reserve officers who cannot be replaced” without harming their units’ operational capabilities.

News of the possible extension, which has been in the works for some time, was met with fierce denunciations from the opposition.

“For how long can we continue to walk all over the reservists, who have put themselves in danger for us for over 200 days this year. How detached can you be??” National Unity MK Matan Kahane wrote on X, noting “just last week the coalition voted in favor of a law exempting our ultra-Orthodox brothers from military service.”

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, a former defense minister, likewise panned the measure, tweeting that it “tramples of the most basic principle in Judaism: ‘All of Israel is responsible for one another.'”

“The government continues to sacrifice the reserve soldiers on the altar of coalition considerations and political survival,” Liberman charged.

Opposition Leader and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid accused the government of betraying soldiers and their families.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 10, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

“After the evasion law, on Sunday the government will drop the cost on us,” Lapid said in a video message posted to social media on Thursday evening. “Three resolutions will be voted on: more reserve days per year, more years in the reserves and the extension of regular service.”

If, in order to spare the ultra-Orthodox from serving, the government extends the service of the regular and reserve soldiers, “this is a betrayal of the fighters, a betrayal of the reservists, a betrayal of families,” he continued. “I call on the members of the Knesset from all factions, including Likud: let’s stop this madness. This is our emergency mobilization order.”

Early Tuesday, lawmakers voted 63-57 to apply “continuity” to a 2022 bill lowering the current age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students from 26 to 21 and “very slowly” increasing the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

The vote was to renew the legislative process where it left off, without having to start from scratch in the current session. The legislation is slated to advance to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee next week in order to be prepared for the second and third readings it must pass to become law.

Though several coalition members expressed opposition to the measure, only Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud ended up opposing it. Shortly after casting his vote, he walked out of the plenum.

“The people of Israel long for agreements – national changes are carried out with broad agreement,” Gallant later wrote on X. “We must not engage in petty politics at the expense of IDF soldiers.”

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men after clashes during a protest outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, as a group of soldiers stands behind them, March 4, 2024 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

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

In 2017 the High Court ruled that mass exemptions to military service on a group basis are illegal and discriminatory. Successive governments have since that time tried and failed to formulate new legislation to settle the matter, while requesting repeated deferrals from the court.

However, justices have shown diminishing patience, and the need to fill the military’s manpower shortfalls has become far more acute since the outbreak of the war in Gaza and the threat of war on the Lebanese border.

The nine-justice panel at the High Court of Justice hearing petitions demanding the immediate conscription of ultra-Orthodox young men to the Israel Defense Forces, June 2, 2024. (Amit Shabi/ POOL)

The court 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 had expired. As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to deal with a severe political headache owing to the high priority Haredi political parties place on both yeshiva funding and military exemptions.

Netanyahu declared his support for advancing the bill last month after failing to come to an agreement with his ultra-Orthodox partners on legislation to enlist members of their community. By working to advance the legislation, Netanyahu appears to be trying to show the High Court that he is working on the enlistment issue, which would buy him time while keeping his Haredi coalition partners on board.

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