Gallant says no Haredi draft bill without centrist support, risking coalition crisis

Defense minister says ultra-Orthodox must share military burden; announcement welcomed by Gantz, met by vague Haredi threats that issue could bring down the government

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 28, 2024. (Screen capture)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 28, 2024. (Screen capture)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called for an end to military draft exemptions for members of the ultra-Orthodox community Wednesday, and said he would only back legislation settling the matter if it is endorsed by centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot.

His position, along with growing pressure on the government to reach a resolution on the long-deferred political hot potato, could set up a do-or-die clash with Haredi parties key to the survival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Urging lawmakers to hash out legislation to address a situation in which most ultra-Orthodox men can skip mandatory service in favor of religious studies, Gallant said manpower strains on the army amid fighting in Gaza and on the northern border required the contribution of all sectors of society.

“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,” Gallant said in a televised address from Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv Wednesday evening.

“To attain the goals of the war, to handle the threats from Gaza, from Lebanon, from [the West Bank], and to prepare for the emerging threats from the east, we need unity and partnership in decisions about our future,” he said

“Any draft law agreed to by all parties of the emergency coalition will be acceptable to me,” he said. “But without the agreement of all parts of the coalition, the defense system under my leadership will not present the law.”

Gallant’s insistence on a law supported by National Unity party lawmakers Gantz and Eisenkot, both former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff, 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.

The announcement was welcomed by Gantz, but met with immediate Haredi backlash and vague threats that the issue could bring down the government.

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 Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

The plan was met with fierce backlash, with a number of lawmakers, including some within the coalition, demanding the shortage be made up by the ultra-Orthodox.

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 whose support Netanyahu’s governments have relied on to stay in power.

On Monday, the court threatened to annul a government resolution passed in June 2023 instructing the IDF not to draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students for nine months, while it formulates a new law.

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

The “burden of service” has been a challenge for 75 years, which now comes “in a time of war we have not known for 75 years,” Gallant said Wednesday.

“Therefore, we are required to make agreements and decisions, which we haven’t made in 75 years,” he added.

The defense minister noted that he had met with Netanyahu, Gantz, heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties, and other coalition members, telling them that “it is possible and important to reach an agreed framework for a draft [law].”

“I call on the prime minister to lead a joint process with all coalition factions, and to reach the necessary agreements on the draft law. I hope there are also parts of the opposition that will join the framework that will be formulated,” he said.

Gantz, who brought his party into the coalition to have a hand in running the war in Gaza which broke out on October 7, welcomed Gallant’s call.

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

“All parts of Israeli society should take part in the right to serve. This is a security, national, and social need,” Gantz said, promising to work “with all factions of the Knesset and all parts of Israeli society” for consensus legislation.

Gantz and Eisenkot themselves held a press conference this week demanding Haredi as well as Arab participation in national service.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said his Yesh Atid party would submit legislation on the issue next week. “It is egalitarian, efficient, and fair. All Likud has to do is act like a Zionist party and vote for it. We can’t win together if we don’t fight together.”

But trouble brewed from within the religious and right-wing flanks of the coalition, with both Shas and UTJ fuming over Gallant’s announcement, Kan news reported.

“If Netanyahu wants to still be in power by the summer, he’ll need to okay a draft exemption law,” a UTJ source told the outlet.

“Gallant’s announcement seems like a planned move to bring down the government,” Haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat quoted a “very senior source within the ultra-Orthodox parties” saying. “There’s no other explanation. Someone who wants a consensus bill doesn’t run to the media.”

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis stage a counter protest outside the Supreme Court ahead of a hearing over a petition demanding that a government resolution ordering the state temporarily not to enforce such conscription be annulled, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit minister Amichai Eliyahu accused Gallant of pushing ideas aligned with “a shallow progressive atmosphere, which tried with all its might to divide us and weaken us from within.”

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee last week that some 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community received a deferral from military service over the past year, reportedly an all-time record. Some 540 of them decided to enlist since the war started, the IDF said.

The law granting blanket exemptions was struck down by the court in 2017 as a discriminatory measure that violated the principle of equality before the law, and the government was instructed to pass a new law that would lead to greater ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

The state last week told the court that it needed more time to legislate such a law because it had been impossible to do so during the ongoing war. It said it would outline what the draft law would include by March 24, and then asked to be given an extension until the end of June to pass the legislation.

The court, hearing petitions on the issue on Monday, gave the state until March 24 to explain why it was not drafting the ultra-Orthodox.

Israeli soldiers stand on their tank in a staging area near the Israel-Gaza border in southern Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Speaking Wednesday, Gallant said drafting all parts of society was “essential to winning the war.”

“This is not a partisan issue. It is not a sectoral matter,” he said. “This is a national-security matter of utmost importance.”

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