‘Failure of values’: Gantz threatens to bolt coalition over Netanyahu’s Haredi draft bill

‘The people won’t be able to put up with it,’ National Unity leader says of plan to raise age of exemption from service for ultra-Orthodox, as IDF faces manpower shortage amid war

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"

File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outline for a Haredi draft law a “red line” and a threat to national cohesion, National Unity leader Benny Gantz on Sunday threatened to exit the coalition if the controversial legislation is approved.

“The people will not be able to put up with it, the Knesset will not be able to vote for it, and my colleagues and I will not be able to be members of the emergency government if such legislation passes the Knesset,” Gantz, a member of the key war cabinet, declared in a video message posted online on Sunday evening.

“I call on the Likud ministers and members of the Knesset — make your voices heard,” he urged, arguing that the draft legislation constituted a “serious failure of values” that would create significant social rifts, particularly during wartime, when Israeli society needs to remain united.

“We will not be able to look our fighters, both within and outside our borders, who are asked to extend their service, in the eye,” Gantz continued. “We will not be able to look directly at the reservists who are leaving behind their families and businesses.”

Political commentators noted that any final passage of such a law could take long months, and thus Gantz’s statement could be seen as giving Netanyahu some leeway.

Netanyahu’s proposed outline does not set a quota of ultra-Orthodox men enlisting per year, the Ynet news outlet reported earlier Sunday. Instead, it sets the age of exemption from service at 35, and ensures that Haredi men who don’t enlist will not face criminal sanctions. It also includes a plan to set up special ultra-Orthodox battalions in the IDF and add Haredi positions in the country’s emergency services and government offices.

According to a report on Sunday by Channel 12 political correspondent Daphna Liel, the proposal also stipulates that the process of passing a conscription law will only begin at the end of June — shortly before a Knesset recess.

Ministers are set to discuss the planned legislation on Tuesday.

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.

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.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man clashes with police during a protest outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, following the arrest of a Haredi woman, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

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.

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.

A 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 performs military service.

Since February, Gantz and his fellow National Unity minister Gadi Eisenkot have been promoting their own plan for ultra-Orthodox enlistment, which calls for gradual annual increases in the number of Haredim doing military service, but does not detail specific quotas.

Complaining that Netanyahu has refused to seriously discuss his proposal, Gantz earlier this month boycotted a meeting on enlistment attended by the prime minister, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other senior leaders.

In a statement, the National Unity party said at the time that 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.”

Gantz joined the coalition as an emergency measure at the start of the war and last week National Unity MK Matan Kahana told The Times of Israel that his party was “not using the issue of enlistment to bring down the government.”

A religious Jewish soldier is embraced by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family member after a swearing-in ceremony for the IDF Nahal Haredi unit, at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, May 26, 2012 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Especially now, everyone understands that the matter of the draft is not just a social issue of equality, but it’s really a question of the security of the State of Israel,” Kahana said.

Earlier on Sunday, Gallant — who has stated he cannot support any legislation passed without broad agreement from all coalition parties, especially Gantz’s — also rejected Netanyahu’s plan.

In his video message, the Likud minister registered his opposition and criticized his fellow coalition members for refusing to be “flexible” on the issue of blanket exemptions from the IDF for the ultra-Orthodox community.

Speaking ahead of his departure for Washington, where he will meet with his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Gallant said that reaching an agreement on the issue was “essential for the existence and success of the IDF,” and appealed for a compromise to be found.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant issues a video statement from Ben Gurion Airport before flying to the US, March 24, 2024. (Screenshot: Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

“This coming Tuesday, a proposal for a decision on the recruitment issue will be brought to the government by the prime minister, on his initiative,” Gallant said. “My position has not changed. I will not be a party to any proposal that isn’t agreed upon by all coalition factions — and under my leadership, the security system will not submit it for legislation.”

“There is still time to come together and form a joint proposal,” Gallant added. “I again call on the prime minister and Minister Benny Gantz to take advantage of the time that remains and forge a broad consensus on the issue of the conscription law, for the benefit of the IDF and the benefit of the State of Israel.”

The draft is set for a cabinet vote on Tuesday, while Gallant is visiting Washington.

The draft version was also heavily criticized by the opposition, with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid describing it as an “evasion law” allowing for “an exemption from military service for tens of thousands of young men” during the midst of a war.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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