Gantz boycotts meeting on Haredi draft with PM after cabinet ignores his proposal

Netanyahu expected to push for additional delay in drafting yeshiva students as ultra-Orthodox parties hammer out their own compromise offer

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"

Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz announced on Thursday that he would boycott a meeting on the matter of the ultra-Orthodox military draft called by Prime Minister Netanyahu, over the government’s refusal to seriously discuss his party’s proposal for Haredi enlistment.

The Thursday evening meeting between the prime minister, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Shas leader Aryeh Deri and other members of the government comes a day after another meeting on the issue, during which Netanyahu decided to ask the High Court of Justice to allow the government to delay submitting an explanation as to why its refusal to draft Haredim to the army is legal.

Haredi men of military age have been able to avoid the draft for decades by enrolling for study in yeshivas and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption.

According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu hopes to postpone the enlistment of members of the ultra-Orthodox community until the beginning of July, while the coalition works to formulate a new conscription law.

In a statement, Gantz’s National Unity party said 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.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has refused to take steps to discuss Gantz and fellow National Unity party member Gadi Eisenkot’s proposed military enlistment outline or other solutions to the draft crisis, the party added.

Ministers Benny Gantz (L) and Gadi Eisenkot present an outline for the draft of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army during a press conference in the Knesset, February 26, 2024. (Sam Sokol)

Gantz and Eisenkot’s outline — which calls for gradual annual increases in Haredi military service, but does not detail specific quotas — is the only plan publicly promoted by members of Netanyahu’s coalition thus far.

And while it has been “presented to the representatives of the various factions,” the government has thus far failed to “hold a professional discussion” and “no alternative” has been put forward, National Unity claimed.

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, the government has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, announced the early draft date of 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 a fierce backlash among lawmakers from across the political spectrum and encouraged multiple legislative pushes to end the de facto exemptions for the Haredim.

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.

Successive Netanyahu governments have struggled to come to a consensus on legislation dealing with the issue since a 2017 High Court decision determined blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to be discriminatory and unconstitutional and ordered the state to find a solution to the issue.

A law that authorizes the exemption expired in June 2023, and a temporary regulation to extend it is set to expire at the end of March, after which the military will not be authorized to exempt Haredi young men from the draft and will need to start enlisting them.

Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police during a protest outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced last Wednesday he opposes extending blanket exemptions and that he would only back legislation on the matter that is endorsed by centrist ministers Gantz and Eisenkot, who joined the cabinet for the sake of the war effort.

Gallant’s position has been seen as an impediment to the coalition passing a Haredi-friendly bill without reaching across the aisle to those opposed to large-scale exemptions.

The prospect of a large-scale enlistment of yeshiva students has frightened ultra-Orthodox leaders, who see military service as a threat to their religious identity and community continuity.

Pushing back against the idea of enlistment, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef recently declared that if yeshiva students are forcibly enlisted, the Haredim would “go abroad,” while a representative of the United Torah Judaism party warned that a move to draft full-time Torah students could topple the coalition.

According to ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabbat, representatives of  UTJ and Shas are currently holding discussions to formulate alternative legislation in order to head off major changes to the current system.

While it has not been finalized, the plan would establish enlistment quotas for Haredim who are full-time students, while those for whom “learning is their profession” would remain exempt, and separate units would be established for ultra-Orthodox servicemen.

“As far as I know at this time, there is no definite proposal,” UTJ MK Moshe Roth told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

“The idea of quotas and separate units is not new. It is a framework that has been discussed before. It is reasonable to assume that this will be the basis for a long-term arrangement.”

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni speaks during a Shas party meeting in the Knesset on January 23, 2023. Also pictured (from left) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shas leader Aryeh Deri and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A number of ultra-Orthodox politicians, such as UTJ leader and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, have recently expressed a willingness to discuss the enlistment of Haredi young men who are not scholars.

Asked how this position differs from the current status quo under which those not studying are legally obligated to serve, Roth told The Times of Israel last week that there are currently “many that are registered in the yeshiva” even when they are no longer students and “if the army wants to go after these, that would be the compromise.”

An unsourced report by Channel 12 earlier this week claimed that the prime minister had conveyed to Haredi parties that “he would be sure to compensate them retroactively,” if the High Court finds that the current government policy exempting Haredim from military and national service is illegal — at which point Haredim who do not serve would be considered to be in breach of the law, and they and the institutions where they study could be denied state funds.

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