Ministerial pushback may have nixed cabinet discussion on Haredi enlistment bill

Bill would set hard targets for recruitment, impose penalties for failing to meet goals, ultra-Orthodox media report; prominent yeshiva dean rails against compromise

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 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)
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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is widely expected to bring a proposal outlining for ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the cabinet Wednesday during its weekly meeting — although heated opposition within the coalition may prevent it from receiving a hearing.

While details of the proposal — which is believed to have been hammered out with the cooperation of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Shas and United Torah Judaism parties — have not been made public, Haredi news site Kikar HaShabat reported that it represents significant concessions on the part of the Haredi representatives.

According to the report, the legislation contains hard targets for recruitment, which would trigger economic sanctions on yeshivas if left unfilled. Failure to meet the law’s requirement after a period of three years would result in a general mobilization of yeshiva students. The law would also include a new oversight mechanism for the army to ensure that those granted an exemption for full-time yeshiva study are actually engaged in such activities.

Despite multiple media reports that the legislation would be placed before the cabinet on Wednesday, the bill did not appear in a leaked copy of the meeting posted online by Kan political correspondent Michael Shemesh, who wrote that it was removed “at the last moment” due to ministerial pushback.

The High Court of Justice 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 has expired. As a result, Netanyahu has to deal with a severe political headache owing to the high priority Haredi political parties place on that funding.

The attorney general has also stated that there is no longer any legal framework to refrain from drafting eligible Haredi men into the army, meaning that there is now heavy political pressure on Netanyahu to come up with a legislative proposal that satisfies his Haredi coalition partners — or face a political crisis.

File – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the security cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

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.

The High Court is scheduled to hear arguments over petitions demanding the immediate enlistment of Haredi yeshiva students on June 2. Although the government was to have presented the court with its legislative plans for increasing ultra-Orthodox enlistment by May 1, the court gave it an extension after the government failed to come up with concrete proposals.

Last week, public broadcaster Kan reported that Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs was working on an enlistment plan together with the Haredi parties in the coalition, United Torah Judaism and Shas.

According to the Israel Hayom daily, Fuchs believes it will take 10 years to reach the goals detailed in the plan — and has told cabinet ministers that it would allow for around 6,000-7,000 Haredi recruits per year.

While details are otherwise scant, it appears the proposal is not in line with the demands of war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who together with fellow National Unity member Gadi Eisenkot previously presented his own outline for Haredi recruitment and has stated that he “will not be a partner to exercises and tricks at the expense of the state’s security needs.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has said that he will not support any proposal not backed by Gantz and Eisenkot, creating further political difficulties for Netanyahu.

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)

On Saturday evening,  Gantz urged Netanyahu not to present his bill to the cabinet this week, arguing that it would not boost enlistment among Haredim.

Gantz indicated that a vote in the cabinet was scheduled for Wednesday, and said such a move would be deeply divisive, telling the prime minister that advancing such a proposal for “political purposes” would be a mistake.

“I urge you to stop and come to your senses. Introducing such a law is a big mistake at any time, [but] introducing it the way you plan, 48 hours after we honor the heroism of our fallen, will severely harm Israeli society and its resilience,” he continued. “Prime minister — do not dismantle Israeli society during a war for political reasons.”

In response, Fuchs pushed back against what he described as Gantz’s evocation of Memorial Day for political purposes, stating that Wednesday’s cabinet agenda had not yet been set.

Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The reported deal has also generated significant pushback among ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders. In a letter to Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, Rabbi Moshe Tzedaka, a senior yeshiva dean, compared those pushing for Haredi enlistment to Israel’s biblical foe Amalek and insisted that even those who are not engaged in full-time study must not enlist in the IDF.

Those arguing for universal enlistment only seek to harm “the Torah-observant public” and are engaged in a “malicious plot,” he wrote, according to Kikar Hashabat. Haredi politicians must “stand firm” against the government’s “decrees and against anyone who seeks to compromise with them,” he urged.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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