Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a meeting on Sunday with some of his coalition partners to discuss potential new legislation on the military draft, weighing lowering the age at which members of the ultra-Orthodox community can get a formal exemption from service.
The Israel Defense Forces indicated that it did not have an issue with the current outline.
The proposal would lower the age of final exemption from the army from the current 26 to 23 or 21. While soldiers are generally drafted from age 18, many yeshiva students are thought to remain in religious study programs longer than they normally would in order to dodge the draft by claiming academic deferments until they reach the age of final exemption. By lowering the permanent exemption age, the government hopes to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.
According to unsourced figures cited by Channel 12 news, some 11,000 Haredi males turn 18 each year, of whom about 10 percent — 1,200 — are conscripted in the IDF.
Additionally, according to the outline reported by the Israel Hayom daily, combat soldiers and other essential roles would see a significant pay raise, while soldiers in non-essential positions would serve less time.
Netanyahu met with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Minister David Amsalem, and coalition whip Ofir Katz to discuss the new IDF draft legislation. Notably missing from the meeting were representatives of the two Haredi parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas.
The Haredi population of Israel overwhelmingly opposes performing mandated national civil or military service, seeing it as a way for external forces to potentially draw away its members. Some more extreme elements in the Haredi community have protested violently against military conscription.
In the past, similar proposals to lower the age of exemption have been fiercely opposed by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who claim it is a ploy to draw Haredim out of Torah studies and the Haredi way of life.
It was unclear if Haredi lawmakers would support the latest proposal.
According to Channel 12, ultra-Orthodox parties told Netanyahu that according to coalition agreements, a new draft law must be advanced at the same time as the approval of the state budget, which is expected to happen next month. Channel 12 said the new draft proposal would allow the government, not the Knesset, to determine the conscription quotas for Haredim.
On Sunday afternoon, the Likud party in a statement said that “as of now, there is no agreement on a Draft Law.”
A senior military officer said lowering the exemption age to 23 was acceptable and “does not violate the balance” of recruiting soldiers from all populations, as long as there is “appreciation of service people.”
“The IDF will continue to develop unique [draft] routes for the ultra-Orthodox population,” the senior officer said, referring to units specifically for Haredi soldiers.
For decades, ultra-Orthodox Israelis have held a near-blanket exemption from national service in favor of religious studies, but in 2012 the High Court of Justice struck down the law permitting the arrangement, ruling that it was discriminatory.
A new law was drafted to address the issue, but it too was overturned in 2017 by the court, which demanded that the government pass fresh legislation on the matter or else Haredi Israelis would be forced to enlist.
For the past six years, defense ministers have been requesting and receiving extensions from the court, as the government failed to draft and pass legislation that would both pass muster with Netanyahu’s Haredi coalition partners and also not fall afoul of the country’s discrimination laws. The current and 15th extension is scheduled to expire on July 31, 2023.
Yisrael Beytenu head MK Avigdor Liberman, who served as defense minister between 2016 and 2018 and who has repeatedly demanded fewer exemptions for Haredim, said on Twitter that “the government is trying to bribe IDF service people in exchange for the evasion law.”
National Unity head MK Benny Gantz, who served as defense minister between 2020 and 2022, and MK Gadi Eisenkot — both of whom are former IDF chiefs — slammed the plan to lower the exemption age.
Gantz said that the government’s current plan “is a danger to the people’s army,” despite proposing a similar plan last year.
“The IDF is our protective wall and also the most important social enterprise we have established here. According to the latest publications, this factory is now facing danger. Not immediately, but in the future,” Gantz said.
Eisenkot said that during this time of division, “it is best not to introduce another partisan dispute.” He said that passing legislation that exempts wide swaths of Israeli society from military service “will have an effect on all those who do serve.”
The Likud party, meanwhile, countered that the framework currently under discussion is “similar” to Gantz’s — which passed a first reading before the last government was dissolved. That bill planned to lower the exemption age to 21.
Gantz had previously demanded that lowering the exemption age also require both ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis — who are legally exempt — to perform some form of national service after high school.
Gantz during his Sunday press conference again suggested extending the national service requirement to all Israelis. Under his plan, the military would get first choice of recruits and the rest would perform other security and civil service roles, in the police, in hospitals, in schools, etc.