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Cabinet meeting on ultra-Orthodox conscription bill postponed amid disagreements

Ministers won’t seek to lower the maximum age requiring exemption from 24 to 21, as it could raise legal difficulties, reports say

An ultra-Orthodox man walks past the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 22, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90/ File)
An ultra-Orthodox man walks past the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 22, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90/ File)

Ministers postponed a planned meeting set for Tuesday at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv at which they were expected to discuss a bill requiring compulsory military service for members of the ultra-Orthodox community, Hebrew-language media reports said Monday.

According to the Walla news site, the meeting was delayed due to disagreements not only over the draft but also IDF pensions.

For decades, ultra-Orthodox Israelis have held a near-blanket exemption from national service in favor of religious studies, but in 2012 the High Court of Justice struck down the law permitting the arrangement, ruling that it was discriminatory.

A new law was drafted to address the issue, but it too was overturned in 2017 by the court, which demanded that the government pass fresh legislation on the matter or else Haredi Israelis would be forced to enlist.

For the past four years, the defense minister has been requesting and receiving extensions as it failed to draft and pass legislation that would not also fall afoul of the country’s discrimination law. The current, tenth extension is scheduled to expire on June 1, 2022.

The Walla news site reported it was unclear if a 2018 version of the law would be presented for approval at the meeting, or a new version, in which the age up to which yeshiva students must obtain deferments is lowered from 24 to 21.

However, business news website The Marker reported that the exemption age would remain at 24, and the original version of the law would be discussed.

Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Unnamed senior coalition officials told Walla that even if the age of deferments isn’t lowered in the version of the bill that ends up winning government approval, they will seek to include that clause during the legislative process in the Knesset.

Lowering the age to 21 is a plan the new government included in its coalition agreements when it formed in June.

The planned move is expected to encourage more ultra-Orthodox Israelis to join the workforce at a younger age, rather than remain in religious institutions, which keep them from being drafted. Currently, ultra-Orthodox men spend some six years fighting against being drafted by presenting proof to the IDF recruitment office that they are yeshiva students. The younger this requirement stops for them, the quicker they might be able to get jobs rather than stay in yeshiva, it is thought.

Lowering the age could raise legal difficulties, both reports stated. The Marker added that Defense Minister Benny Gantz is set on sticking by the legal recommendations, apparently in order to abide by the discrimination law.

According to Walla, Gantz had demanded that lowering the exemption age also come with approving his plan, which would require national service not only by Haredi Israelis but also by Arab Israelis, who are also legally exempt.

According to Gantz’s plan, all Israelis will ultimately be required to perform some form of national service after high school. Each year, the quota for the number of people required to perform national service would rise by 5,000, until after six to eight years every eligible person would be covered.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during the swearing-in ceremony for new President Isaac Herzog on July 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under the program, the military would get first choice of recruits and the rest would perform other security and civil service roles, in the police, in hospitals, in schools, etc.

The move would further shorten military service, likely sparking criticism from the IDF, which already opposes the current truncated service time of two years and six months for men, down from three years prior to 2015.

The Haredi population of Israel overwhelmingly opposes performing mandated national service, including positions within the Haredi community, seeing it as a way for external forces to potentially draw away its members. Some more extreme elements in the Haredi community have protested violently against military conscription.

In Tuesday’s meeting, ministers are also expected to discuss military pensions, the Kan public broadcaster and Army Radio reported. Currently, military retirees receive generous pensions worth hundreds of millions of shekels from the state budget, despite being at an age where they can still work.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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