Avigdor Liberman has become the biggest critic of the ultra-Orthodox political establishment since he refused last year to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, citing insurmountable differences with the Haredi parties.
The disagreement has focused primarily on a bill regulating the draft of ultra-Orthodox men to the army — Liberman demands that more seminary students be compelled to enlist, denouncing much of the Haredi community as “draft dodgers,” while the ultra-Orthodox parties demand that a law that partially passed in the Knesset several years ago face significant revisions before being advanced further.
But an exposé published Monday indicates that while he was serving as defense minister between 2016 and 2018, Liberman’s office generously granted exemptions from military service to many ultra-Orthodox men, primarily those with well-connected relatives.
Hundreds of young men, including sons of politicians, rabbis and other prominent figures, obtained the exemptions after ultra-Orthodox lawmakers contacted Liberman’s office, the Haaretz daily reported Monday in a lengthy piece, citing sources familiar with the events.
Liberman’s office denied the claims, which come a month before national elections and could dent his credentials as a secularist hero battling for equal sharing of the burden of military service between the various Israeli communities.
The ultra-Orthodox community has historically enjoyed blanket deferrals from the army in favor of religious seminary studies, and many in the community shun military service, which is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis. However, there is opposition to the arrangement from many in the broader population who want the ultra-Orthodox to help shoulder the burden of defending the country.
Monday’s report said a key player in handing out the exemptions was Liberman’s close associate and adviser on matters related to the ultra-Orthodox, Avi Abuhatzeira.
“The [ultra-Orthodox] Knesset members or their aides would contact Abuhatzeira by direct call, a message or an email, and he would immediate come on board to help,” one source was quoted as saying. “It was routine, nobody concealed it.”
Another source said that Abuhazeira “was exactly like a member of the ultra-Orthodox parties.”
Liberman’s office dealt with those matters on a daily basis as part of his close cooperation with ultra-Orthodox politicians, the report said, adding that in total there were hundreds of such cases.
In addition to the case-by-case requests, the report also said hundreds of members of the extremist Jerusalem Faction, which has waged a campaign against enlistment and has staged hundreds of often-violent demonstrations on the matter, were granted sweeping exemptions during Liberman’s tenure. It did not explain how this process worked or who requested these exemptions.
The other requests — occasionally even filed directly to Liberman — came from all Haredi MKs from both the Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties, and from both the Hasidic and the Lithuanian factions that make up UTJ.
Sources said many of the exemptions would not have been possible to obtain without Liberman’s intervention, including some handed out using false medical documents.
Abuhatzeira and Liberman’s office mainly took care of those matters via contact with the deputy commander of the Meitav military unit in charge of welcoming new recruits and sorting them into their bases or military branches, the report said. Sources were quoted as saying those contacts were held in breach of rules and without proper approval.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said it would investigate the matter and that if meetings were held without approval, “that is a problem.”
Abuhazeira commented that he had received many requests for exemptions from all Israeli communities and had dealt with them “seriously.”
Liberman’s office said the former defense minister “never intervened in any case related to exemptions from the military, in any form.” It said all requests were handled professionally and without his personal involvement.
Israel’s current political deadlock can be traced back to political wrangling over the enlistment of yeshiva students. In May, less than two months after voters appeared to give Netanyahu a mandate to form a new government, coalition talks collapsed. The sticking point was a draft law obligating ultra-Orthodox men to participate in Israel’s mandatory military draft. Ultra-Orthodox parties wanted to soften the text of the law, while Avigdor Liberman and his secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu insisted he would not join the government unless the law was passed in its current form. Israel heads to its third national election in under a year on March 2.