Jewish Home voices support for universal service bill

National religious party calls Peri Committee recommendations a ‘historic compromise’ and credits Bennett-Lapid partnership

Israeli police officers confront ultra-Orthodox demonstrators during a protest in front of the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, May 16, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Israeli police officers confront ultra-Orthodox demonstrators during a protest in front of the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, May 16, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

Jewish Home party officials late Thursday hailed a government committee’s recommendations for a revolutionary universal conscription bill that would severely limit the number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis exempt from the draft.

Sources within the national religious party, headed by Naftali Bennett, called the Peri Committee’s plan a “historic compromise,” and credited Bennett’s alliance with Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid.

“The union between Bennett and Lapid produced a balanced program which recognizes, for the first time in the history of the state, the value of Torah study,” officials told Ynet, “alongside [the value] of the ultra-Orthodox entering the service field and the workforce.”

Officials added that “religious Zionism had returned to be a bridge between all segments of society.”

The Peri Committee on Thursday submitted for Knesset review the government’s plan for universal conscription, which, if passed, would require ultra-Orthodox 18-year-old men and women to register for service. If they are engaged in full-time Torah study at the time, they would be allowed to defer service until age 21, at which point they would have to choose either to enlist in the IDF or register for national or civil service.

Those who defer their service would have to be registered at yeshivas whose student bodies are subject to regular government auditing. Yeshivas that receive state funding and register their students for service deferment would also be required to introduce vocational training into their curriculum.

Individuals who do not register for the draft would be subject to criminal prosecution, as would yeshiva heads whose institutions do not comply with the new law. The bill also mandates incentives and penalties for yeshivas according to their compliance with the registration rules.

The bill allows for 1,800 top Torah scholars to be entirely exempted from service per annum, far below the estimated 7,000-8,000 ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds who do not currently register each year.

Yaakov Peri (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Minister of Science, Technology and Space Yaakov Peri (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The proposed legislation also features changes to the general conscription framework, including a shortening of service for males from 36 to 32 months, and an extension of service for females to 28 months, up from 24. The plan would also gradually extend and expand the Hesder yeshiva program, which combines Torah study with military training and would be available as an option for ultra-Orthodox recruits, as well.

Most of the changes would roll out in 2016, including the criminal prosecution of individuals who do not register for the draft, allowing for a transitional period in which to build up the bureaucratic and physical infrastructure needed to implement the changes.

The bill sets gradual, increasing recruitment goals for the ultra-Orthodox, beginning this year with the goal of 2,000 registrations for the IDF and another 1,300 for national and civil service.

It also sets a 6,000-per-year recruitment goal for Israeli Arabs into national service.

The draft legislation is to be debated on Sunday at the weekly Cabinet meeting, then passed to the Ministerial Legislative Committee, which will in turn pass it on for a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum.

After the committee recommendations were published Thursday, Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel said that a clause in the bill that seeks to lengthen the military service portion of the Hesder yeshiva track to two years (up from 16 months) was “completely opposite” to the coalition agreement upon which the current government was founded, and added at the time that his Jewish Home party would oppose the bill until it is modified to conform with previous agreements.

Yisrael Beytenu also registered its reservations, saying that the proposed legislation did not address its demand for a quota for drafting Arabs.

In February 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tal Law, which had granted sweeping de-facto exemptions from military or national service to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, was unconstitutional.

Following the ruling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Knesset would draft a revised, more equitable law, which ultimately was not approved by the Knesset. Following the January 2013 elections, Netanyahu formed the Peri Committee to draw up another universal service recommendation.

Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.

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