Gantz, Eisenkot present plan to expand draft to Haredim, Arabs: ‘Majority must serve’

Cabinet members warn they won’t back extension of blanket draft exemptions; suggest alternate service tracks at ‘recognized security, emergency and charity organizations’

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"

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)
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)

Declaring that “all segments of society” must serve their country, National Unity ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot on Monday presented an outline for the enlistment of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army.

Addressing reporters in the Knesset, the two former IDF chiefs of staff conditioned their support for the government’s wartime push to extend IDF troops’ terms of service on its acceptance of their plan, which seeks to gradually increase the number of Israelis drafted over the course of the next decade.

Gantz and Eisenkot are members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet. Originally members of the opposition, they joined the current emergency coalition days after the October 7 Hamas onslaught on southern Israel and the outbreak of the war with Hamas in Gaza.

“All the people of Israel, all parts of society should take part in the right to serve our country. The challenges are enormous, and you cannot look those who are serving in the eyes and tell them that things will go on as they have,” Gantz declared.

Eisenkot added: “We are required to immediately promote an Israeli service law in order to expand the scope of conscription.” He called the proposed plan “a good basis” for future action based on “clear and evolving recruitment targets.”

The issue of Haredi exemptions from Israel’s mandatory draft has received renewed attention since the outbreak of war in Gaza, and in particular in recent weeks, after the IDF and government proposed changes to the security service and reserve service laws which would see a significant increase in the length of time conscripts and reservists serve, due to manpower shortages caused by the war and hostilities on the northern border.

Monday’s press conference also came as the High Court of Justice ordered the state to explain why it should not annul a government resolution passed in June 2023, which questionably instructed the IDF not to draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, while the Knesset formulated and passed new legislation on the matter. But the war in Gaza put a stop to any such efforts.

Many, including cabinet ministers and coalition MKs allied with ultra-Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, have demanded the ultra-Orthodox begin to enlist to make up the manpower shortages.

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee last week that some 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community received an exemption 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.

Gantz and Eisenkot’s plan is made of several principles, the first of which is that an “absolute majority of young people” must serve their country.

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the IDF ‘Nahal Haredi’ unit, at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem on May 26, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

They called for the establishment of a “unified recruitment directorate” to oversee exemptions and determine where draftees will serve and proposed the establishment of dozens of alternate service tracks at “recognized security, emergency and charity organizations.”

According to the proposed outline, these tracks will be “adapted to the cultural needs” of Israel’s diverse populations and offer “progressive compensation with an emphasis on the front lines.”

While Gantz did not propose specific quotas of Haredi recruits, he indicated that the number should increase gradually year-over-year, and said that while most Haredim would be drafted under the plan, there would still remain an “elite who will continue to study, and many will serve at the same time as studying.”

The plan, as presented, is similar to one proposed by Gantz in 2021, while he was serving as defense minister.

According to that plan, all Israelis would ultimately be required to perform some form of national service after high school. Each year, 5,000 more people would be required to perform national service, until, after six-to-eight years, every eligible person would be conscripted.

Ahead of Gantz and Eisenkot’s announcement, members of the opposition came out against their plan, dismissing it as insufficient.

“There is only one outline, especially after October 7: Every 17-year-old goes to the IDF induction center,” said Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman, accusing Netanyahu of “sanctifying draft dodging.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said the plan was “not new. It’s an outline that hasn’t yet conscripted even one Haredi person.”

He urged National Unity to support his own party’s legislation, referring to a recent Yesh Atid bill withdrawing government benefits from citizens who evade military or civil service.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid attends a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked about Lapid’s criticism, Eisenkot told The Times of Israel that while he did not want to respond directly, both he and Gantz, as former IDF chiefs of staff, had extensive experience with the issue and welcomed collaboration with “anybody who has good suggestions.”

Recruiting the ultra-Orthodox is widely considered a political third rail for Netanyahu, who relies on the support of the Haredi parties in order to maintain his coalition.

The ultra-Orthodox have long enjoyed exemptions from military service, protesting or refusing draft orders and seeking to enshrine the exemption in law. Many in the Haredi world view army service and wider integration with the secular world to be a threat to their religious identity and the continuity of insular community traditions.

Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students receive state-paid stipends for studying in yeshiva, within the framework of the law allowing them to receive annual military service deferrals until they reach the age of exemption.

Netanyahu may have no choice but to deal with the matter, however, with the High Court demanding answers on the matter, and after the Attorney General’s Office warned last week that without the government passing new legislation soon to regulate exemptions from military service, the state will not be legally entitled to continue exempting Haredim from conscription, and will need to start enlisting them on April 1.

Brothers in Arms activists protest outside a High Court hearing over the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

In 2017, the High Court struck down legislation allowing the blanket exemption of Haredi men from military service as discriminatory, and gave the government one year to pass new legislation that would boost levels of ultra-Orthodox military enlistment. Due to numerous elections that occurred in the interim, it has since given the state multiple extensions to that deadline.

The next deadline expires March 31.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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