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Gantz threatens to enlist all Haredim unless his national service plan advances

Defense minister, who has been feuding with ultra-Orthodox parties, says he won’t extend military exemption which ends next Monday

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Ultra-Orthodox men walk outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men walk outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday threatened to move to conscript all ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who currently are largely exempt from military service, beginning next month, as he presented a fresh plan to address the country’s overall enlistment policy.

For decades, ultra-Orthodox Israelis have maintained a near-blanket exemption from national service in favor of religious study, but in 2012 the High Court of Justice struck down the law permitting this arrangement as discriminatory. A new law was drafted to address the issue, but this too was overturned by the court in 2017, demanding that the government pass fresh legislation on the matter or else Haredi Israelis would be forced to enlist.

For the past three and a half years, the defense minister has been requesting and receiving extensions on this demand as it failed to draft and pass legislation that would not also fall afoul of the country’s discrimination law. The current extension is scheduled to expire next Monday, February 1.

In a press conference, Gantz said he would not request another extension unless his plan, which would require national service not only by Haredi Israelis but also by Arab Israelis, who are also legally exempt, is passed.

The Haredi population of Israel overwhelmingly opposes performing a mandated national service, including positions within the Haredi community, seeing it as a way for external forces to potentially draw away its members. Some more extreme elements of the Haredi community have protested violently against military conscription.

Arab Israelis, who are generally seen as less connected to state apparatuses, have not been required to perform any national service. There have been relatively few significant pushes to change this situation.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks in a press conference at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2021. (Screen capture)

“I plan to go to the prime minister and demand that this proposal receives government approval in the next cabinet meeting, in accordance with the directives of the attorney general. If this proposal is not advanced, my position to the High Court of Justice will be to oppose an extension of the draft law,” Gantz said, speaking in the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Gantz acknowledged that the announcement was coming ahead of elections, making it seem as though this move was part of his campaign rather than a serious policy proposal.

“I know what you are going to say — but this is not a campaign stunt. It is the continuation of a proper process,” he said.

In recent weeks, Gantz has clashed with the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government over coronavirus restrictions, which have been notably flouted in some Haredi communities. Gantz has called for harsher penalties for these violations.

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

Under the program, the military would get first choice of recruits and the rest would perform other security and civil service roles, in the police, in hospitals, in schools, etc.

Everyone would be required to perform two years of national service. This would further shorten military service, a move that is sure to face criticism from the IDF, which already opposes the current service time of two years and six months for men, down from three years prior to 2015.

Former head of the air force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2019. (INSS)

This model was largely developed by a group called Pnima, which was recently led by the director-general of Gantz’s ministry, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, and with which Gantz was also once involved. Minister in the Defense Ministry Michael Biton, who was also involved in Pnima, led the team that crafted the proposal, which included representatives from the Defense Ministry, the IDF and other government ministries.

The plan is meant to bring different groups in Israeli society together through national service and to provide them with access to training and education to help them get jobs later in life.

Until now, even the most far-reaching proposals that have been seriously considered by the country’s governments have not called for full conscription of all ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, as this plan does.

Currently, roughly half of eligible Israelis perform military service, despite the IDF’s claims that it is a “people’s army.” The exemptions include not only Haredi and Arab Israelis, but also a growing number of Israelis who are released from service for mental health or physical reasons.

“The IDF turned from a people’s army into a half-of-the-people’s army. The people in service and in combat have become chumps,” Gantz said.

The relatively low-profile Pnima Movement was created in 2015 by former education minister Shai Piron, aimed at addressing Israel’s socio-economic problems. He was joined a year later by former IDF chiefs of staff Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, who are now defense minister and foreign minister, respectively.

Ashkenazi first led the team that developed Pnima’s universal conscription proposal.

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