Knesset approves ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions until 2023; Yesh Atid to appeal

Amendment to Equal Service law voted through with 49 MKs in favor, 36 opposed; members of Joint (Arab) List abstain

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Soldier and ultra-Orthodox man, shoulder to shoulder (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Soldier and ultra-Orthodox man, shoulder to shoulder (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset overnight Monday-Tuesday approved in second and third readings an amendment to the Equal Service law, which dramatically rolls back the 2014 reforms on ultra-Orthodox recruitment into the IDF and strikes the communal penalties imposed if the annual quotas for Haredi soldiers are not met.

The amendment passed with a 49 MKs in favor and 36 opposed. Parliament members from the Joint (Arab) Party did not take part in the vote.

As part of the changes, the transition period before the law goes into effect will be extended from 2017 to 2020, with an additional second-tier transition period through 2023. The 2014 legislation had set rising quotas for ultra-Orthodox enlistment that if not met by 2017 would prompt the mandatory draft of all ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students under 24. As part of the original law, the defense minister would be given the authority to exempt some 1,800 exceptional yeshiva students from the recruitment, and those who fail to report for duty would be liable for criminal prosecution as draft-dodgers. This last provision was stridently decried by the ultra-Orthodox community, who termed the decision a “persecution” against yeshiva students and the community as a whole.

However, the new amendment overturns the penalties against all yeshiva students, and states that the defense minister be given the authority to determine how to proceed if the quotas aren’t met. The new law also effectively eliminates the full implementation of the law, leaving the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox students after 2023 entirely to the discretion of the defense minister.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks at a party meeting at the Knesset on June 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As part of negotiations with the coalition’s ultra-Orthodox parties last week to pass the two-year budget, the coalition’s party leaders pledged to support the amendment, indicating that it will pass into law on Monday, barring any last-minute opposition from individual coalition lawmakers.

The amendment was forcefully opposed by Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, which spearheaded the earlier legislation in the last government. The party vowed to appeal the amendment with the High Court.

“In a week filled with security incidents, at a time when there are funerals and people are hospitalized, today the Israeli Knesset [essentially] voted against IDF soldiers,” said Lapid.

Other members of the opposition also blasted the passing of the amendment. Opposition lawmakers, including Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, have accused the government of “caving” to the ultra-Orthodox to win political support.

Coalition lawmakers, meanwhile, who both supported and formulated the earlier draft law, explained their about-face by saying the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox community into the Israeli army cannot be coercive.

The Likud’s Yoav Kisch, who prior to entering the Knesset led a campaign in favor of the Equal Service law, said last week “we don’t want enlistment by force. There is no quick fix. We need a process, and dialogue.”

The ultra-Orthodox community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army for Torah study.

According to a report by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in the first five decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, the exemptions were overseen solely by the defense minister. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that the defense minister was not authorized to exempt what had swelled to some tens of thousands of students, and said any arrangement on army enlistment must be anchored in law and handled by Israel’s parliament. Following the Supreme Court ruling, the Knesset passed the Tal Law as a five-year interim law, under which yeshiva students were eligible to receive yearly deferments and exemptions from army service. In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the contentious law, while noting that it compromises Israel’s equality. A year later, the Knesset extended the Tal Law by five years, prompting the Supreme Court to rule that it was unconstitutional.

The striking of the Tal Law led to the 2014 enlistment legislation, which is also pending a petition in the High Court.

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