Gallant on ultra-Orthodox draft: ‘We need manpower now — it’s math, not politics’

Defense minister doubles down on call to end Haredi draft exemptions, denies plans to leave Likud; Ben Gvir says PM should tell Gallant: ‘You’re with us or you resign’

File: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a press conference in Jerusalem, December 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)
File: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a press conference in Jerusalem, December 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday doubled down his call for lawmakers to hash out legislation to end blanket exemptions on the military draft for members of the ultra-Orthodox community, amid criticism from within the coalition.

“The army is in need of manpower now. It’s not a matter of politics, it’s a matter of mathematics,” he said.

Gallant’s comments came after he announced last week that he would only back legislation settling the matter if it is endorsed by centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, significantly reducing the likelihood of the coalition being able to pass a Haredi-friendly bill without reaching across the aisle to those opposed to large-scale exemptions.

In his televised address from Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening, Gallant said: “We cherish and appreciate those who dedicate their lives to learning the Torah. However, without physical existence, there is no spiritual existence. Our security challenges demonstrate that everyone must bear the burden [of service]. All parts of society.”

He noted manpower strains on the IDF amid ongoing fighting in the Gaza Strip, sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attacks, and on the northern border amid clashes with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, came out against Gallant on Sunday, accusing him of “constantly trying to take us to elections.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir arrives at a voting station in Tel Aviv, during the municipal elections, February 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“Prime Minister Netanyahu should straighten Gallant out and give him an ultimatum — either you’re with us or you resign. And the same goes for [war cabinet minister] Benny Gantz. If we don’t have 64 [Knesset seats] we’ll have 63.”

It is likely that other members of Netanyahu’s coalition beyond Gallant support his position, with multiple Likud members saying in recent months that blanket exemptions no longer made sense.

Successive Netanyahu governments have struggled to come to a consensus on legislation dealing with ultra-Orthodox military service since a 2017 High Court decision that determined blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to be discriminatory and illegal.

Attempts to draft legislation have failed to bridge gaps between mainstream lawmakers who seek a more equal sharing of the burden of military service and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties that demand exemptions continue and on whose support Netanyahu’s governments have relied on to stay in power.

Protesters demanding ultra-Orthodox military conscription demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to reports in Hebrew media Sunday, Gallant, who entered politics with ex-Likudnik Moshe Kahlon’s now-defunct Kulanu party, which he left to join Likud in 2019, also denied planning to leave the Likud party.

“I’m sorry to disappoint some of the people here, but my place is in Likud and I will stay in Likud,” Gallant was quoted as telling ministers during a cabinet meeting on Sunday morning.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox exemptions has crept back to the fore of the political agenda in recent weeks after the IDF announced plans to add time onto mandatory service terms for military recruits and to delay retirement for some reservists while also raising the number of days they must serve annually, as it prepares for extended fighting in Gaza and the possibility of war against Hezbollah.

The war in Gaza erupted on October 7 when Hamas led a devastating attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Israel responded with a military campaign to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, destroy the terror group, and release 253 hostages who were abducted by terrorists during the Hamas massacres.

To carry out the campaign, the IDF called up a total of 287,000 reservists, although many of them have already been released from duty for now. It marks the largest-ever call-up of reservists in Israel’s history.

Emanuel Fabian and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report. 

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