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Yisrael Beytenu bolts panel drafting national service law, citing its ‘special treatment’ for Arabs

Knesset committee plans to exempt Israeli Arabs from personal fines, sanctions that are to be leveled at ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Israel Beytenu MK David Rotem (L) will no longer be sitting on the Committee for the Advancement of an Equal Burden with MK Zeev Elkin and MK Yohanan Plesner (R), the chairman of the committee. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israel Beytenu MK David Rotem (L) will no longer be sitting on the Committee for the Advancement of an Equal Burden with MK Zeev Elkin and MK Yohanan Plesner (R), the chairman of the committee. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman yanked his Yisrael Beytenu party Thursday from the Knesset committee tasked with finding a solution for draft evasion in Israel, following the committee’s announcement of plans to grant Arab Israelis a sweeping exemption from the personal sanctions that are to be leveled on ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers.

A statement from Yisrael Beytenu decried the decision of the Committee for the Advancement of an Equal Burden to “grant special treatment to the Arab-Israeli community and award it with an exemption from national service.” The party also announced that it planned to submit a bill of its own, countering the Committee’s proposed legislation, that would “cement an equal share of the burden among all segments of society.”

The Jewish Home party said later Thursday it was leaving the panel, for the same reason.

Although the committee decided Thursday to immediately work to accommodate 6,000 Arab-Israeli youths in national service a year — up from the current figure of 2,400 per year — it said that sanctions would not be leveled against Arab shirkers on an individual basis; rather, institutions and municipalities that would seek to discourage cooperation with the draft would be penalized.

The committee slammed Yisrael Beytenu’s decision, calling it “the populist maneuver of a party that’s good at preaching an equal share in the burden but has no real intention of advancing initiatives to promote [such equality].

“Today the committee adopted as a national priority the principle of service for all Israeli citizens,” the committee said in a statement. “Yisrael Beytenu has opted to foment discord instead of persisting in the joint work that will bring about the inclusion of tens of thousands of Israeli citizens in [national] service. It’s a shame that political interests have superseded any sense of responsibility, making it difficult to take advantage of this historic opportunity to implement a comprehensive, balanced solution and make a real change.”

Liberman has repeatedly agitated for legislation ensuring mandatory service for all, and intimated a readiness to foment coalition crises over the matter.

“Regrettably, Yisrael Beytenu’s demand for equality is not being met in the outline of the new law – and we cannot abide it. Equality for all means equality among secular and religious, among haredim and Arabs – among everyone – and we cannot neglect anyone en route to this equality,” Yisrael Beytenu’s representative on the committee, MK David Rotem, wrote on Facebook.

Should the recommendations of his committee be adopted, ultra-Orthodox youths who shirk army or civil service will face harsh personal sanctions, including fines, Plesner had said earlier Thursday.

The Committee for the Advancement of an Equal Burden is working on drafting legislation to replace the expiring Tal Law, which allowed ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to defer army service.

“Everyone serves, everyone performs a meaningful service. The law will call for enlistment,” Plesner said Thursday, before Yisrael Beytenu’s announcement that it was bolting the committee. “Anyone who breaks the law will face the option of sanctions.”

The Knesset has until August to come up with an alternative to the old law, which was declared unconstitutional by the High Court earlier this year. Legislators are looking to make army or civilian service mandatory across Israeli society, including among ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, which have the option of an alternative national service.

Some members of the ultra-Orthodox community have vowed to ignore any new laws, saying they would sooner face jail sentences than enlist.

Plesner’s comments came shortly after it was reported that the committee was seeking to level heavy fines against draft dodgers.

Explaining the practicalities of a situation in which ultra-Orthodox men would be enlisted in the IDF, Plesner said the special needs stemming from a religious way of life could be met by “forming new and special brigades,” modeled after one such brigade, the Nahal Haredi, which has been active in the army for a number of years.

Opening new hesder yeshivas, which combine military service with Torah study, would be one course of action.

“Those who don’t serve in the army brigades will serve in the police and rescue services,” Plesner said.

Plesner added that the committee was seeking to link government support given to religious institutions with their cooperation with the draft orders. “A yeshiva with students who have not enlisted by the age of 22 will face sanctions,” he said, adding that the institution would receive financial benefits for every student who started serving at a younger age.

“Practically, morally and legally, the onus must be on the individual,” Plesner said. “Without placing obligations on the individual, we won’t meet our goals for recruitment,” he explained, “and that is what some people are still arguing about.”

Science and Technology Minister MK Daniel Hershkowitz (Jewish Home) said that his party will not participate in sweeping the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox “under the rug.” Speaking at the so-called Suckers’ Tent protest outside the Knesset, Hershkowitz said on Thursday that Israel’s national religious camp is proof that it is in fact possible to combine a Torah lifestyle with service in the IDF.

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