Knesset approves revival of ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill; Gallant votes against

Opposition rails at coalition for advancing measure, slams government for promoting exemptions to military service amid war; several Likud MKs hint bill will face heavy scrutiny

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a Knesset plenum vote on reviving an ultra-Orthodox military enlistment bill, early June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a Knesset plenum vote on reviving an ultra-Orthodox military enlistment bill, early June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawmakers early Tuesday voted 63-57 to apply “continuity” to a bill from the previous Knesset dealing with the military service of yeshiva students, reviving the contentious legislation amid the ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza.

The vote was to renew the legislative process where it left off, without having to start from scratch in the current session. The legislation will now advance to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to be prepared for the second and third readings it must pass to become law.

If eventually approved, the bill would lower the current age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students from 26 to 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

Though several coalition members expressed opposition to the measure, only Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud ended up opposing it. Shortly after casting his vote, he walked out of the plenum.

“The people of Israel long for agreements – national changes are carried out with broad agreement,” Gallant later wrote on X. “We must not engage in petty politics at the expense of IDF soldiers.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid tore into the coalition over the vote, which he denounced as “one of the most despicable moments of humiliation of the Israeli Knesset ever.”

“In the midst of another day of hard fighting in the Gaza Strip, the reckless government passes a law of evasion and insubordination. It’s all politics. Zero values,” Lapid said a statement.

National Unity leader Benny Gantz at a Knesset plenum vote on reviving an ultra-Orthodox military enlistment bill, early June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A day after departing the government, MK Benny Gantz’s National Unity party accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the coalition of having returned to a pre-October 7 approach.

“While IDF soldiers are fighting for the country, [Netanyahu and the coalition] are fighting to perpetuate the [Haredi] exemption from serving,” National Unity said in a statement. “It is not too late to pass a broad and comprehensive outline that will satisfy the needs of security and society.”

MK Avigdor Liberman, the hawkish chairman of the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, also lamented the vote, tweeting that during “the dead of night, while the best of our sons and daughters are fighting on the battlefield, the Israeli government took another step toward the evasion law, which is a serious injury to IDF soldiers and reservists and contrary to the needs of the security establishment — all for the sake of political survival.”

Ahead of the vote, Liberman had urged members of Netanyahu’s Likud party to oppose the legislation, stating that they need to “vote for Israel’s security interests” rather than those of the coalition.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, who heads the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said his “chief consideration” in his panel’s upcoming deliberations on the bill “will be providing a true and accurate answer to the IDF’s needs and the security needs of Israel.”

While he voted for the bill on Tuesday, Edelstein previously indicated that he would not allow it to pass through his committee in its current form.

“The State of Israel is faced complicated challenges and our role is to provide it with the conditions to win,” Edelstein said in a statement. “This is a historic turning point for Israel.”

He also vowed the committee’s work will be done “in a clean, topical manner and in full cooperation with all parties.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset plenum vote on reviving an ultra-Orthodox military enlistment bill, early June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK MK Dan Illouz, who had expressed reservations about the bill, ended up voting to revive it while saying it “needs significant improvements.”

“The current legislation is not perfect and needs significant improvements, especially given the security challenges we face post-October 7,” Illouz said in response to an inquiry from The Times of Israel.

“However, blocking the legislative process now would only delay the critical discussions and necessary enhancements. We need a law that respects Torah study, meets our urgent security needs, and is crafted through careful deliberation. Voting against the continuity law at this stage is a political move that will push us further away from achieving an effective solution.”

In a joint letter to Netanyahu last week, Illouz, Likud MK Moshe Saada and Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli indicated that while they intend to vote to revive the bill’s revival, they will not support it in its second and third — final — readings without “significant changes.” While Chikli is not a lawmaker and cannot vote in the plenum, his involvement highlights the significant reservations felt by some in the coalition regarding the proposed law.

Tuesday’s vote came against the backdrop of an intense public and legal debate over blanket ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions, and as the High Court of Justice considers multiple petitions demanding the immediate drafting of young Haredi men.

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption. In 2017 the High Court ruled that mass exemptions to military service on a group basis are illegal and discriminatory. Successive governments have since that time tried and failed to formulate new legislation to settle the matter, while requesting repeated deferrals from the court.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men near a sign reading ‘army recruitment office’ during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the military, in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, justices have shown diminishing patience, and the need to fill the military’s manpower shortfalls has become far more acute since the outbreak of the war in Gaza and the threat of war on the Lebanese border.

The court ruled in March that the state must cease subsidizing Haredi yeshivas whose students are eligible for the draft, since the legal framework for doing so had expired. As a result, Netanyahu has had to deal with a severe political headache owing to the high priority Haredi political parties place on both yeshiva funding and military exemptions.

Netanyahu declared his support for advancing the bill last month after failing to come to an agreement with his ultra-Orthodox partners on legislation to enlist members of their community. By working to advance the legislation, Netanyahu appears to be trying to show the High Court that he is working on the enlistment issue, which would buy him time while keeping his Haredi coalition partners on board.

The justices have since expressed sharp and unambiguous criticism of the government’s position, suggesting at a recent hearing that the court’s patience with the decades-long failure of successive governments to deal with the Haredi enlistment conundrum has run out.

Though the bill would ostensibly make life easier for yeshiva students and will be backed by Haredi parties on Monday in order to attempt to placate the court, in the previous Knesset those parties — then in the opposition — fiercely opposed it, claiming it was a ploy to draw Haredim out of Torah studies and the Haredi way of life by making yeshiva students eligible to leave full-time study and join the workforce at a younger age without fear of becoming eligible for the draft.

However, those parties are also expected to demand revisions before backing it any further, likely in direct conflict to the revisions desired by secularist members of Likud.

The turmoil means advancing the bill beyond Tuesday’s vote will likely prove a Herculean effort.

Most Popular
read more: