Defense minister expected to vote against motion

Knesset to vote on reviving Haredi IDF bill in bid to put off High Court intervention

Bill to lower exemption age and encourage limited enlistment expected to be moved to committee to placate justices on long-stalled issue — but there it will face intense opposition

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"

Ultra orthodox Jews protest against the drafting of Ultra orthodox jews to the Israeli army, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Ultra orthodox Jews protest against the drafting of Ultra orthodox jews to the Israeli army, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Despite strong resistance from opposition parties and even some members of the coalition, the Knesset was expected to vote Monday night on whether to approve the revival of a bill from the previous Knesset dealing with the military service of yeshiva students.

Monday’s vote is only on renewing the legislative process where it left off, without requiring the bill’s backers to start from scratch in the current session. If eventually approved, the legislation would lower the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi Torah students from the current 26 to 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

The vote comes 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.

Despite notable opposition by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the bill is expected to be approved to go straight to committee, with the first reading that it passed in the previous Knesset to be considered as constituting its first plenum vote. In committee, it is expected to face far greater scrutiny and objections, including by many members of the coalition. It would need to win plenum approvals in eventual second and third readings to become law.

By working to advance the legislation, Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

If he can prevent the court from making an immediate ruling on the matter of the draft, by arguing that legislation to settle the matter is making progress, it could potentially push off the point at which the justices rule that yeshiva students must be drafted. Such judicial intervention would create a coalition crisis with the Haredi parties, which have threatened to bolt if the young men of their community are drafted.

According to Hebrew-language media reports, Gallant was expected to vote against advancing the contentious legislation. Ynet reported he told associates: “Anyone representing soldiers cannot support the bill. This isn’t a political matter. The IDF needs more soldiers.” According to Kan, Gallant described the vote as “a political circus.”

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.

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.

The prime minister’s announcement drew immediate criticism from the opposition and was widely seen as a political maneuver aimed at buying time, as the bill in its current form does little to offer comprehensive solutions to the tangled issue.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators block a road and clash with police during a protest against the Haredi draft, on Route 4, outside the city of Bnei Brak, May 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

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.

Because the bill passed its first reading in a previous legislature, its revival needs to be approved by the Knesset. On May 27, the cabinet rejected an appeal by National Unity MK Chili Tropper against advancing the bill, approving a revival vote in the plenum within two weeks.

But the Attorney General’s Office declared the measure legally problematic, meaning that it cannot be advanced via a streamlined process used for government legislation but only as a private Knesset member’s bill.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) walks with the acting commander of the 146th Division, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, in northern Israel, June 9, 2024. (Shachar Yurman/Defense Ministry)

Also firmly against the bill is National Unity MK Benny Gantz, its original backer. When promoting the bill two years ago, Gantz insisted that it needed to be accompanied by efforts to extend the national service requirement to both Haredi and Arab Israelis, without which it would fail to accomplish its goals.

He has said it fails to address the new reality in which Israel finds itself, facing drawn-out conflicts on multiple fronts

While he may vote for the bill on Monday, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman MK Yuli Edelstein of Likud has indicated that he will not allow the bill to pass through his committee in its current form, and other Likud lawmakers have also registered objections.

In letter to Netanyahu last week, Likud MKs Dan Illouz and Moshe Saada indicated that while they intend to vote to revive the bill, they had reservations and would not support it in its second and third readings without “significant changes.” They were joined in their letter by Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli, who is not an MK and cannot vote in the plenum.

Likud MK Tally Gotliv was initially thought to be opposed to the bill’s revival but said Monday that protests against the bill outside her home Monday morning had contrarily “convinced me to vote in favor.”

Activists left funeral wreaths outside the homes of coalition members Monday, saying they symbolized the deaths further draft exemptions would precipitate.

“From the next [victims], to those backing the exemption law,” the writing on the wreaths read.

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 Monday’s vote will likely prove a Herculean effort.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, center, speaks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Times of Israel staff and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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