Gantz asks High Court for delay on passing ultra-Orthodox military draft law

Gantz asks High Court for delay on passing ultra-Orthodox military draft law

Sources say defense minister doesn’t have enough time to pass legislation before mid-June deadline; Lapid slams former ally for ‘surrender’ to Haredi demands

Illustrative. Soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative. Soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday asked the High Court of Justice to postpone its deadline for the passage of legislation regulating military service for members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Sources close to the Blue and White leader told the Ynet news site that the request was submitted because Gantz only took office three weeks ago. The law is due to be passed by June 16 under the court order, a timeframe the sources said was too narrow to advance such a significant piece of legislation.

The ultra-Orthodox community has historically enjoyed blanket deferrals from the army in favor of religious seminary studies, and many of its members shun military service, which is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis. However, there is opposition to the arrangement from many in the broader population who want the ultra-Orthodox to help shoulder the burden of defending the country.

Multiple variations of the ultra-Orthodox draft law have been advanced by the Knesset and knocked down by the High Court of Justice in a decade-long legal and political saga.

Gantz’s request for an extension was quickly denounced by opposition chief and former ally Yair Lapid, who has positioned himself as a counterweight to the ultra-Orthodox on religion and state issues. Lapid in 2014, as government minister, advanced a version of the law that would require more ultra-Orthodox men to serve. That law was rolled back a year later, when he was out of government and the ultra-Orthodox parties returned to the coalition.

Blue and White’s Benny Gantz (right) and Yair Lapid during a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“It is very sad to see the former [IDF] chief of staff asking the state for time to try to explain why he has surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox demands regarding IDF recruitment. [The notion of] equal burden will be buried. Only the suckers will continue to serve, and all this under the auspices of Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi,” Lapid said, naming the two former army chiefs at the top of Blue and White.

Israel’s year and a half of political deadlock, resolved last month, can be traced back to wrangling over the enlistment of yeshiva students.

Last May, less than two months after voters appeared to give Netanyahu a mandate to form a new government, coalition talks collapsed. The sticking point was a draft law obligating ultra-Orthodox men to participate in Israel’s mandatory military draft.

Ultra-Orthodox parties wanted to soften the text of the law, while Avigdor Liberman, head of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, insisted he would not join the government unless the law was passed in its existing form.

Extremist ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protesting against the army draft, block the entrance to Jerusalem on November 26, 2017. (Flash90)

The Defense Ministry-drafted bill then being debated would have set minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would trigger financial sanctions on the yeshivas where the students study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

The new bill is expected to be softened. The current coalition government is still dependent on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which have in the past threatened to bolt unless dramatic changes were made to the bill.

In December the army announced it had launched an investigation into the years-long inflation of enlistment numbers of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, following a report on the matter by the Kan broadcaster. According to the exposé, over the course of several years, the IDF published false numbers on the number of people joining the army from the ultra-Orthodox population, sometimes doubling or tripling the actual figures, making it seem as though the military was closer to meeting the quotas set by law than it was.

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