Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday defended his ministry’s proposal to formalize limited ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF, saying the proposal was a fair middle line on the divisive issue.
“The proposal doesn’t fit my own worldview, and certainly not [Shas leader Aryeh] Deri’s or [United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov] Litzman’s, but this bill really is the answer, maybe the best one, to the IDF’s needs,” the defense minister said at a conference at Bar-Ilan University.
“The bill is maybe the most balanced [yet], and the only thing that can give an answer to all the problems and the demands and the arguments. I have said from the start that if you want to pass a bill, everyone will have to give up their private political agenda and build something apolitical,” he said.
He added: “Everyone understands that this is an apolitical bill, a bill that is good for the IDF and I hope we can pass it as-is.”
The Defense Ministry published its recommendations for “a durable, realistic and relevant arrangement” for ultra-Orthodox conscription on Monday.
The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a contentious one in Israel, revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.
The new proposal sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas where they study.
“The number of recruits from the ultra-Orthodox community has increased tenfold in the last decade. We should continue the efforts to progressively increase the number of recruits to the IDF and National Service,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
“The IDF has a need for ultra-Orthodox recruits, and has the ability to integrate them in a way that’s best for the army and that contributes to their continued employment in the labor market,” it said.
The proposal specifically recommends “setting new goals for the IDF and National Service draft, an annual increase in the number of those serving, significant financial sanctions on draft dodgers, and increasing benefits and remuneration for those who serve.”
If adopted, the target for 2018 would be set at just below 4,000 recruits, with the number increasing by 8 percent per year for three years, 6.5% for the three years after that and 5% for a further four years.
If the draft falls short of 95% of those targets, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funds allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place. The fines would increase each year the targets are missed.
“The principle of universal conscription is a key value and is necessary to preserve the IDF as the army of the people,” the recommendations explained.
But the ultra-Orthodox community would still enjoy various exemptions from the regular conscription law, such as its recruits only being obligated to join the army from the age of 24, and not 18 like the regular draft.
The recommendations also create a possible loophole that could inflate the numbers of recruits by allowing those who left the ultra-Orthodox community before the age of 18 to be included within the targets.
The recommendations come ahead of a September deadline set by the High Court of Justice for the Knesset to re-legislate a previous exemption that the court disqualified.
In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law. However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for a new arrangement to be put in place, giving the government the option to pass a new law.
Giving his coalition partners an ultimatum, UTJ head Litzman said last week that if a Haredi-backed proposal dealing with the community’s conscription is not passed into law by June 22, when the Knesset summer recess begins, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.
The Defense Ministry said it hoped to create a “durable, realistic and relevant arrangement that will meet the needs of the IDF as an egalitarian and popular army, meet the [requirements of the] High Court ruling canceling [a previous draft law] and receive the necessary broad agreement in order to become law.”
After a similar ultimatum was made by Litzman’s UTJ during the Knesset’s winter session, coalition partners reached a last-minute agreement to delay passing a final law until the current summer session. But a compromise agreement has been elusive, with Defense Minister Liberman vowing that his staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party would not fold in the face of demands made by its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted two parallel bills on the military draft. The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of national service in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and refers back to the proposed Basic Law repeatedly in defending the arrangements.
The ultra-Orthodox parties have long been opposed in principle to the passage of constitutional Basic Laws.
According to the March deal, the ultra-Orthodox conscription bills would be shelved until the Defense Ministry presented its own recommendations for amendments, which would then be brought for a Knesset vote.
Recent months have seen sporadic street protests organized by the radical Haredi Jerusalem Faction, which refuses to have any connection with the military.
Ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been largely exempt from Israel’s military draft since then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students from service in 1949 based on a rule that individuals of high sporting or artistic ability would be unfairly held back by military service. The 1949 order defines the seminary students’ studies as a valid “art” exempting them from service.
Over the years, the High Court of Justice has struck down a number of changes to the laws regarding ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military service for failing to meet the required standards of equality before the law.