MKs hope for compromise as contentious Haredi draft bill goes to committee

Lawmakers debate legislation lowering age of exemption from service for yeshiva students; bill could ‘provide a real answer to the needs of the IDF,’ says Likud’s Edelstein

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"

Lawmakers take part in a debate on ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on June 18, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset spokesman)
Lawmakers take part in a debate on ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on June 18, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset spokesman)

Lawmakers expressed cautious optimism Tuesday regarding the possibility of a compromise on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, as the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee opened its first discussion of government-backed legislation lowering their age of exemption from military service.

As lawmakers packed into the committee’s meeting room, chairman Yuli Edelstein insisted that despite widespread criticism of the legislation, it provided an opportunity to solve one of the longest-running controversies in Israeli politics.

“We have the possibility… to enact a new law and provide a real solution to the needs of the IDF and the security establishment for the new reality,” he said. “We need to provide a short-term solution that will also work in the long term. This means allowing an ultra-Orthodox guy who enlists to also emerge [from military service] as ultra-Orthodox.”

If eventually approved, the bill would lower the current age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students from 26 to 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

While many in the coalition have expressed significant reservations about the bill, all coalition MKs bar one voted in favor of it in the Knesset plenum last Tuesday, with some explaining they believed it could be salvaged in committee. It is now being prepared for the second and third readings it must pass to become law.

While he voted in favor of the bill, Edelstein has previously indicated that he would not allow it to pass through his committee in its current form.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Likud MK Yuli Edelstein at a committee meeting on June 18, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset spokesman)

Tuesday’s debate was primarily focused on political maneuvering rather than practical legislative work.

Addressing the committee, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid told lawmakers that they must remember “that we are in an emergency” and warned that “if we engage in political considerations here instead of security considerations, people will die.”

National Unity MK and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot cautioned that if the bill is passed in its current form, he saw “a great risk to the IDF’s ability to continue to fulfill its mission.”

“I recommend throwing out this law and bringing in its place an Israeli service law for all which needs to apply to all 18-year-olds,” he said.

Cautious optimism

Speaking with The Times of Israel outside the committee room during the debate, Yesh Atid MK Moshe Tur-Paz expressed hope that the Knesset will pass an ultra-Orthodox draft law that his party will find acceptable.

Asked if there is a real chance to modify the bill, Tur-Paz says he believed “the only way the law will pass is if it will be very clear that thousands of young ultra-Orthodox guys who are relevant to [join] the army will go into the army in the coming year. Nothing less than that will be approved by us.”

Ultra-Orthodox men arrive at the IDF recruiting offices in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I don’t know [how] to predict if we will succeed, but we are working very hard at it,” he added.

Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen sounded a similar note, calling the atmosphere in the meeting “excellent” and claiming that those in the committee “completely understand that this is a historic moment and the story isn’t just the enlargement of the army but a moral story of equality of the burden.”

Coalition lawmakers in the committee appear willing to advance a law drafting the Haredim, he asserted.

New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar was less sanguine, however, telling The Times of Israel that a change in the law “is possible but I don’t think the government will do that.”

“I said in the discussion that if we cannot legislate a good law, it’s better not to legislate a law at all,” he said.

A long-simmering conflict

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 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.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth attends a party faction meeting in the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to The Times of Israel in his Knesset office on Tuesday afternoon, MK Moshe Roth of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party called the hearing a “circus” at which politicians engaged in grandstanding rather than dealing with substantive legislative issues.

“When it becomes practical, we will join the process,” he said, adding that the bill is “problematic in a certain sense but the question is do we have any other choice?”

But while the Haredim are willing to come to the table, Roth said that any agreement must contain provisions to exempt full-time yeshiva students from military service and ensure that those who do enlist are able to maintain their religious standards.

“It still has to be worked out but it will [hinge on] these two concepts: no quotas on yeshiva students, and that the military establishment will provide the proper environment and hold up its side of the bargain,” he said. “As long as people don’t use [the issue] as a political tool or as political ammunition, yes a compromise can be reached.”

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