Cabinet postpones discussion of Haredi enlistment as legal deadline looms

Unless new consensus framework can be reached by the end of the month, the government will have to enlist ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, endangering stability of the coalition

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"

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road during a protest against drafting of Haredim to the IDF, on Route 4 near Bnei Brak, March 3, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road during a protest against drafting of Haredim to the IDF, on Route 4 near Bnei Brak, March 3, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

Only weeks before the expiration of the current legal framework regulating ultra-Orthodox enlistment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet on Sunday called off a planned discussion to hammer out a new status quo, due to growing tensions within the emergency wartime government.

The decision to postpone the discussion came only days after war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz boycotted a Thursday evening meeting on the issue convened by Netanyahu over what he called the premier’s failure to seriously discuss his party’s proposal for gradual annual increases in Haredi military service.

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.

Successive Netanyahu governments have struggled to come to a consensus on legislation dealing with the issue since a 2017 High Court decision determined blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to be discriminatory and unconstitutional, and ordered the state to find a solution to the issue.

A law that authorizes the exemption expired in June 2023, and a temporary regulation to extend it is set to expire at the end of March, after which the military will not be authorized to exempt Haredi young men from the draft and will need to start enlisting them.

In a statement, Gantz’s National Unity party said it would participate in any substantive discussion of the issue, but “will not be a partner to exercises and tricks at the expense of the state’s security needs.”

Ministers Benny Gantz (L) and Gadi Eisenkot present an outline for the draft of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army during a press conference in the Knesset, February 26, 2024. (Sam Sokol)

While the cabinet failed to discuss a new enlistment framework on Sunday, it did manage to obtain an extra three days from the High Court of Justice to formulate its response to petitions demanding that the state begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men of military age.

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

That latter plan, presented by the defense establishment last month, generated fierce backlash among lawmakers from across the political spectrum and encouraged multiple legislative pushes to end the de facto exemptions for the Haredim.

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.

Although it granted the government until March 27 to file its response to the petitions calling for the annulment of the June 2023 regulation, the justices expressed their growing impatience with the government on the issue — telling the state that if it does not file its response by the new deadline that the court will rule on the petitions on the basis of the information it currently has.

According to Hebrew media, Netanyahu had hoped to have prepared an outline of what a new draft law would include by Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu reportedly hopes to postpone the enlistment of members of the ultra-Orthodox community until the beginning of July, while the coalition works to formulate a new conscription law.

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

However, due to Gantz’s absence from Thursday’s meeting and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s insistence on refusing to accept legislation passed without broad agreement from all coalition parties, he was unable to present the plan.

Gallant has said that he opposes extending blanket exemptions and that he would only back legislation on the matter that is endorsed by National Unity Ministers Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who joined the cabinet for the sake of the war effort.

Gallant’s position is likely to put to bed any chance of the coalition being able to pass a Haredi-friendly bill without reaching across the aisle to those opposed to large-scale exemptions.

In response, Netanyahu warned Gallant, “If you don’t bring a government decision on Sunday, you are endangering its stability,” national broadcaster Kan reported on Thursday.

The prospect of a large-scale enlistment of yeshiva students has frightened ultra-Orthodox leaders, who see military service as a threat to their religious identity and community continuity.

According to ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabbat, representatives of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties have been holding discussions to formulate alternative legislation in order to head off major changes to the current system.

While it has not been finalized, the plan would establish enlistment quotas for Haredim who are not full-time students, while those for whom “learning is their profession” would remain exempt, and separate units would be established for ultra-Orthodox servicemen.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest outside a High Court hearing on the government’s drafting of Haredi yeshiva students for the military on February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Asked how this position differs from the current status quo under which those not studying are legally obligated to serve, one UTJ lawmaker recently told The Times of Israel that there are currently “many that are registered in the yeshiva” even when they are no longer students and “if the army wants to go after these, that would be the compromise.”

If even “one real yeshiva student has to close his Talmud, there is no government,” the lawmaker said.

Gantz and Eisenkot’s proposal have called for the establishment of a “unified recruitment directorate” to oversee exemptions, although all Israelis would ultimately be required to perform some form of national service after high school.

Speaking with reporters in the Knesset late last month, Gantz did not propose specific quotas of Haredi recruits, but instead indicated that the number should increase gradually year-over-year — and said that while most Haredim would be drafted under the plan, there would still remain an “elite who will continue to study.”

An unsourced report by Channel 12 last week claimed that the prime minister had conveyed to Haredi parties that “he would be sure to compensate them retroactively,” if the High Court finds that the current government policy exempting Haredim from military and national service is illegal — at which point Haredim who do not serve would be considered to be in breach of the law, and they and the institutions where they study could be denied state funds.

Jeremy Sharon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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