Gallant accuses Gantz of torpedoing ultra-Orthodox enlistment compromise

Defense minister claims coalition was 80% of the way to a compromise before talks stalled, alleges Gantz insisted on linking draft issue with date for Knesset elections

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"

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in northern Gaza's Beit Hanoun, December 23, 2023. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in northern Gaza's Beit Hanoun, December 23, 2023. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant appeared to blame National Unity chairman Benny Gantz for contributing to the breakdown of negotiations over the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews on Sunday, accusing his fellow war cabinet member of unnecessarily politicizing the talks.

Despite the fact that the parties “were 80 percent close to an agreement,” talks broke down because “each side fortified itself in its political positions,” Gallant told political reporters during a briefing, according to a report by the Kan public broadcaster.

“I expected Gantz to show the necessary leadership in a time of war, and he was given an opportunity and did not do it, he did not rise above political considerations,” Gallant said — claiming that ultra-Orthodox negotiators told him that Gantz had said “he would not support the law without an agreed upon date for elections.”

In response, Gantz’s office said that he and Gallant would continue to coordinate and “stand together against those who seek to harm the people’s army at this time.”

“It should be emphasized that neither Gantz nor any of his people who conducted the dialogue with Gallant’s office and the ultra-Orthodox parties ever gave their consent to a conscription law by agreeing on an election date, and the ultra-Orthodox parties were the ones who abandoned the talks about a month ago,” the statement from Gantz added.

This is not the first time that Gantz has denied that he had linked the enlistment issue and a push for early elections.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant delivers a statement to the press at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, May 15, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“I have never conditioned the issue of service on elections,” the former IDF chief of staff tweeted in March, declaring that he would not provide support to any proposal “aimed at bypassing the High Court of Justice and not responding to the needs of the IDF and Israeli society.”

According to Kan, Gallant told reporters that negotiators had agreed on several issues and that there were only three matters of disagreement left.

He said that all sides had agreed to a 25% enlistment rate for ultra-Orthodox youth within the first year, rising to 50% within half-a-decade. This process would be supervised by an official at the Finance Ministry, which would allocate money to fund ultra-Orthodox service tracks in the IDF. It was also agreed that those who did not serve in the IDF would not receive certain financial benefits.

Still unresolved were whether enlistment quotas would be established via legislation or government resolution, the level of sanctions on yeshivas which do not meet said quotas, and how to handle yeshivas which lag behind for an extended period, Gallant continued.

When naming the negotiators involved in the talks, Gallant only mentioned representatives of the National Unity and Shas parties, and did not mention United Torah Judaism. It is unclear whether the party was involved in the discussions cited by Gallant or had agreed to the terms enumerated.

File – Ultra-Orthodox students seen at the Ponovitz Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, February 27, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

Asked by The Times of Israel if his party had participated, UTK MK Moshe Roth said that “no plan has yet come to a stage that would need [us] to comment on it. [Our] general outline and guidelines are that yeshiva students will not be drafted, and all quotas and other kinds of compromises” would be required to affect only non-full time yeshiva students.

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.

After Monday’s UTJ faction meeting, “we will be able to know if there is any change or any further comment,” Roth said. Within UTJ “there is a committee that deals with [this issue] and I don’t think there was anything substantial.”

The High Court of Justice 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 has expired, placing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under considerable pressure to find a legislative solution which would satisfy his ultra-Orthodox partners, while overcoming intense opposition from coalition members who support universal enlistment.

Earlier this month, after failing to come to an agreement with his Haredi coalition partners, Netanyahu announced that he would revive a 2022 bill to lower yeshiva students’ age of exemption from military service — setting up an intense political battle over enlistment as he seeks to overcome objections from Gallant, Gantz and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman MK Yuli Edelstein.

Illustrative: Haredi soldiers.

If passed, the legislation would lower the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi Torah students from the current 26 to 21 while “very slowly” increasing the rate of ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

The move by Netanyahu was criticized by both Gantz and Gallant, who said that he would block any draft law “brought unilaterally by some of the coalition factions.”

During Sunday’s press briefing, Kan asked the defense minister if he would still insist on Gantz’s agreement to any enlistment legislation if he pulls his National Unity party out of the coalition, as he recently threatened.

“For me, a unilateral plan would not be legitimate and I used the platform of the emergency government to explain,” Gallant responded, explaining that his objections were not about specific members of the coalition, but stemmed from the fact that “a unilateral outline will not be accepted because they will say it is a political matter.”

Last week, Gantz issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu, threatening to withdraw from the coalition unless the premier commits to an agreed-upon vision for the Gaza conflict by June 8.

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