Government backs new extension to IDF reservists’ service despite backlash

Ministerial Committee supports bill extending emergency measure by three months, endorses Basic Law giving reservists preferential treatment in housing, academia and civil service

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"

Israeli Infantry reservists during light arms training in the Golan Heights before heading south to the Gaza Strip, October 8, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Israeli Infantry reservists during light arms training in the Golan Heights before heading south to the Gaza Strip, October 8, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The government on Sunday gave its backing to a draft bill delaying retirement for IDF reservists, amid widespread criticism of its recruitment policies, which many Israelis believe place unequal burdens on different segments of the population.

The proposal, a Defense Ministry-backed “draft Security Service Law,” calls to extend a temporary measure raising the exemption age for reserve military service from 40 to 41 for soldiers and from 45 to 46 for officers for several additional months due to an ongoing manpower shortage.

Specialists such as doctors and air crewmen will be required to continue serving until 50, instead of 49.

The current increase in the exemption age, which was initially passed by the Knesset late last year, is set to expire at the end of the month.

After canceling a scheduled cabinet discussion on the measure on Sunday morning following harsh public criticism, the government referred the matter to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. The committee approved sending the legislation to the Knesset, where it must pass three readings to become law.

If eventually approved by the Knesset, the draft bill would mark the second extension of the measure, which was intended as a stopgap solution to prevent a mass release from the reserves of those soldiers reaching the exemption age amid ongoing combat operations in Gaza.

Troops operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo published June 14, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

It was first extended for four months by 44-33 a Knesset vote in late February.

Despite the Defense Ministry calling to extend the measure until the end of the year, the committee only supported a three-month extension, following objections by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.

Baharav-Miara told the government on Sunday that the bill was legally unacceptable unless an immediate effort is made to draft extra military power “from the entire population,” a reference to the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who receive blanket exemptions from military service.

The government has faced harsh public backlash over extending reservists’ service while appearing to take little action to draft the ultra-Orthodox. The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is set on Tuesday to debate a bill lowering the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students.

The bill aims to exempt yeshiva students from service at age 21 while at the same time “very slowly” increasing the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara addresses the Israel Bar Association’s annual conference in Eilat, May 27, 2024. (Courtesy: Israel Bar Association)

Following the committee’s announcement to back the bill, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid accused the government of discriminating “between blood and blood,” declaring that the extension means additional service for those already in the army “while the government promotes a mass evasion law for ultra-Orthodox youth.”

While being careful not to comment on any current legislation or wade into politics, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi also endorsed integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the army during comments released on Sunday.

Speaking to soldiers during a visit to Gaza over the weekend, Halevi said that there “is now a clear need” for Haredi soldiers and that every “ultra-Orthodox battalion [the army establishes] decreases the need for the deployment of many thousands of reservists.”

Over the past eight months, reservists have complained of economic and familial problems brought about by their long, repeated stints in the army. In many cases, spouses were left alone to care for children — sometimes with schools and kindergartens closed due to the war, depending on the area — and were unable to work for months.

At the same time as the committee voted to support the increase in the exemption age, it also endorsed a proposed Basic Law drafted by the Religious Zionism party and backed by both coalition and opposition lawmakers.

Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the orthodox Jewish IDF ‘Nahal Haredi’ unit, May 26, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The bill would give enshrine reserve duty as a “fundamental value” of the state and give preferential treatment to reservists in land purchases, academic admissions and civil service employment.

The bill’s intention was to provide reservists “a special status, to give them recognition,” its author, Religious Zionism MK Ohad Tal, told the Times of Israel — adding that equalizing the burden between ultra-Orthodox Israelis and their peers in the service requires “changing the structure of incentives,” both positive and negative.

Asked how he squared his support for the reservists with his vote in favor of the Haredi enlistment bill, Tal called to amend the controversial legislation to increase enforcement in order to draft those only pretending to learn in yeshiva — but said that there was no immediate path to drafting all of the ultra-Orthodox and that he was thinking long term.

Ohad Tal speaks at the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March, June 5, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

Allowing yeshiva students to leave yeshiva and enter the workforce at age 21 would foster greater integration into Israeli society and the economy, leading to more Haredim serving down the road, Tal argued.

“I want them to be part of the Israel economy, to contribute, to pay taxes, because I think that’s the only way. Also, for their children, if they’ll be part of society, I have no doubt that also their children, when they’ll be examining the question of if they need to join the army, they’ll be in a different place,” he said.

“You cannot change 76 years of mentality in any bill,” Tal added. “There’s no bill that can actually make it happen tomorrow. You can initiate the process. In 20 years, in a generation, we’ll see a whole change.”

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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